By Christopher Zoukis
In late June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adopted new regulations to ban drones from coming within 400 feet of 20 federal prisons operated by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The agency action came in response to a security-related request from BOP.
In recent years, drone use has been proven or suspected in security problems in numerous prisons, although most have involved state, not federal, facilities (but there have reportedly been drone-related incidents at federal prisons in Texas and Louisiana).
For example, a year ago, officials at an Arizona prison in a western suburb of Phoenix reported a drone with a payload of cellphones and drugs crashed into part of the prison yard. The contraband delivery attempt failed because the drone came down in a section of the yard which only prison staff could access.
Even earlier, in July 2015 a state prison in Mansfield, Ohio reported having to use pepper spray to quell brawling inmates. Security video camera footage revealed that shortly before the melee broke out, a drone had landed a load in the prison yard. Searchers soon found the drone had delivered a package containing heroin, marijuana, and tobacco. At the time, prison authorities said there had been previous drone-related incidents, but refused to give details.
In another nefarious use of drone technology, in July last year, an inmate escaped a maximum-security South Carolina prison by cutting his way through extensive fencing. Prison officials there said they suspected he had used wire cutters a drone had dropped there for him. The inmate was eventually captured, 1,200 miles away in Texas.
The BOP facilities covered by the new restrictions are located in or around Tucson, Arizona; Atwater and Victorville, California; Florence, Colorado; Sumterville, Florida; Clinton and Marion, Illinois; Terre Haute, Indiana; Inez and Pine Knot, Kentucky; Pollock, Louisiana; Yazoo City, Mississippi; Allentown, Lewisburg, and Waymart, Pennsylvania; Beaumont, Texas; Pennington Gap, Virginia; and Bruceton Mills, West Virginia.
The FAA issued the restrictions in the form of “notice to airmen” (NOTAM) warnings, which are used to notify operators of flight restrictions due to conditions posing particular dangers. Failure to comply with such a notice can bring civil penalties (heavy fines and loss of FAA credentials) or criminal charges, including as much as a year’s imprisonment. Attempts to smuggle contraband into a federal prison also are subject to separate criminal charges.
According to FAA rules on the use of Unmanned Aircraft Drone Systems, or UAS, as the agency terms drones, is also generally forbidden at nighttime, over 400 feet above ground level, and near airports or large gatherings, such as major sporting events. The FAA has also warned drone users away from wildfires and other public emergencies, to avoid interference with efforts by firefighters or other public safety personnel.
The FAA regulations published on June 26 also banned drone flights over 10 Coast Guard facilities. Similar restrictions already applied to some military bases, Department of Energy facilities and Department of Interior locations. Since last October, FAA rules have also made some national landmarks, like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty, into “no-drone zones.”
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.