Growing Concerns about Drones over Prisons

Highlights from the Report “Countering the Emerging Drone Threat to Correctional Security”

a drone with contraband over a prison

The recently released report, "Countering the Emerging Drone Threat to Correctional Security," highlights findings from a workshop that included Correctional Institution Professionals from across the United States. The report was made possible by the University of Denver and RAND, on behalf of the National Institute of Justice. Delegates provided feedback that helped the report authors identify the challenges preventing correctional institutions from responding to drone incidents and opportunities to help prisons and jails manage the growing problem.

According to the report, “Drones represent a serious emerging threat to the safety and security of correctional institutions across the United States. Conspirators are using drones to introduce various contraband, such as drugs and cell phones, into correctional institutions. In some cases, drones have been used to deliver weapons and tools to facilitate escape.”

Two primary questions posed by the University and RAND team focused the conversation:

    1. What are key challenges and opportunities associated with preventing, detecting, and responding to drone incidents?
    2. What are the highest-priority needs? That is, which needs, if addressed, would have the greatest impact on countering the threats posted by drones?

In answer, respondents shared experience, observations, questions, and concerns about drones as a critical threat to prisons. Here are a few of the quotes from departments of corrections that reinforce the concerns about drones:

    • “It’s an epidemic at this point. It’s a daily occurrence, and I’m sure there’s many more that go undetected.”
    • “[The criminal use of drones is] a low-risk, high-reward proposition.”
    • “There’s big money to be made. An iPhone can go for $4,000 or more.”
    • “It’s very hard to respond in time to catch the drone operator in the act.”

According to the report, the workshop participants identified and prioritized 29 needs that will help Correctional Facilities justify and engage solutions. 13 needs were ranked as high-priority, and we found the following four themes emerged. For more detail on the information gleaned from the responses of workshop participants, download the full report.

1. Determining the scope of the problem

Respondents agree that standard terminology used in defining a drone incident, and national data collection and reporting of incidents, are required to better quantify the extent of the drone problem. It is with this data that correctional officers can make a case for funding and solutions that reduce or eliminate the internal and operational strife that contraband delivered by drones causes.

2. Assessing risk and requirements

Guidance is needed for agencies to assess an institution’s vulnerability to drone incursion, articulate the associated operational requirements and objectives, select the appropriate solutions, and effectively implement those solutions to achieve the objectives. This includes resource development or reports, templates, best practices, manuals, buyer’s guides, etc.

Drone technology, solutions to detect drones, and the associated legal and regulatory landscape are rapidly evolving. Administrators need access to independent and objective sources of current and accurate information so that they can make better technology selection decisions.

3. Testing and evaluating

Minimum performance standards are needed, as well as operational evaluations of solutions in varying configurations (e.g., radio-frequency detection with radar) to assess the effectiveness of these solutions in a correctional environment.

Drone detection technology can be expensive, and acquisition can be difficult to justify. Agencies need (1) guidance on how to quantify the return on investment for these technologies and (2) templates and guides to help prepare grant proposals. 

4. Policy and practices

Because drones represent a relatively new threat, administrators would benefit from best practices to better leverage core correctional practices, including intelligence, investigations, and forensics, as part of a multilayered approach to addressing the threat. Furthermore, detailed reporting of incidents (e.g., drone used, flight data, payload, packaging characteristics) to a secure, shared national database would support the investigative process.

Linked in Live session with Joe Russo

Is your prison experiencing drone disruptions? Are you finding similar challenges to implementing solutions?

In a recent Linked In Live session David Lewin speaks with  Joe Russo, one of the report authors, about the threat of drones to Correctional Security - listen today.


If your facility is focused on solving the problem of contraband drops by drone, reach out to one of our experts and determine which solution is the right fit.


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