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Drone Smuggling Prompts Thermal Surveillance Cameras at Columbia, S.C. Prison

This was the first time officials know of a drone being used to smuggle banned items into the prison.

by Harrison Cahill, The State / December 12, 2014

(TNS) -- After someone used a drone to try to smuggle contraband into one of the state’s largest maximum security prisons, state officials are taking measures to combat illegal items, such as cellphones and drugs, from getting across the perimeter fence at Lee Correctional Institution.

Two new surveillance towers and thermal imaging cameras – for starters – should help cut down on people trying to get contraband over the fence, according to prisons Director Bryan Stirling.

In the cat-and-mouse game of smuggling contraband into a prison, Stirling said officials have to be as creative in securing the facility as the smugglers are in infiltrating it.

“These things are worth money in prison, and every time you get contraband in or cellphones, that’s when you have problems,” Stirling said. “A cellphone in the hands of an offender is a weapon.”

On July 31, a man was arrested in connection with a failed smuggling plot that used a drone to fly over the fence and drop off cellphones, tobacco products and marijuana for inmates. Officials located the drone in bushes outside the facility, with the contraband attached.

Stephanie Givens, a DOC spokeswoman, said it was the first time officials know of a drone being used to smuggle banned items into the prison. The name of the man arrested has not been released as the investigation continues.

Lee is in the process of constructing two surveillance towers that will be in direct line of sight of all points of the facility. And Stirling said a thermal security camera surveillance system, on the drawing board before the drone incident, is being installed throughout the Bishopville prison, giving correctional officers a chance to better secure the facility at night.

The DOC will use inmate labor to help with the installation of the cameras, but inmates will only be digging holes for the wiring – and under close watch, according to Stirling.

Stirling said after conducting some research, officials discovered that most of the “throw-overs” of contraband occur at night, which led to the idea of thermal technology.

Stirling said the new security measures should help stop the “stream of prison commerce” that sometimes enters the facility.

The value of a cellphone was made evident to DOC officials several years ago, on March 5, 2010, when a gunman broke into a correctional officer’s home and shot him several times at close range. Capt. Robert Johnson was shot six times in the stomach and chest and left for dead.

Johnson, who was a correctional officer supervisor at Lee, allegedly angered inmates by repeatedly foiling shipments of illegal cellphones and drugs into the facility.

Sean Echols, 31 at the time and serving a sentence for armed robbery, was sentenced to an additional 20 years in federal prison for ordering the hit on Johnson by using an illegal cellphone in his prison cell.

Johnson has since retired. According to court records, Echols will not get out of prison until 2045.

Stirling said when he thinks of making his prisons safer, he keeps what happened to Johnson in mind.

Even though correctional officers perform routine perimeter walks and searches, smugglers have been known to camouflage packages of contraband as lumps of grass or rocks, Stirling said.

“Sometimes they will hide stuff in food,” Stirling said. “They will cut the center out of lettuce or other leafy vegetables and hide things in there.”

Givens said one of the more unusual methods of smuggling a package into the facility involved a potato gun. The gun – essentially a hand-held cannon made of PVC pipe that uses flammable materials as a propellant to fire potatoes long distances – was used to launch contraband over the fence from a nearby cut of woods.

“The bottom line is these folks sit in prison all day and we try to keep them busy with different programs,” Stirling said. “But, they are sitting there all day thinking of ways to get things in, and we have to counterbalance that.”

Some of the other counterbalances being implemented with the thermal cameras include staffing the front gate of the department’s headquarters located on Broad River Road, which Stirling said was previously unmanned. Now, visitors and vendors driving through the gate will be checked-in by correctional officers.

Stirling also said 50 correctional officers have gone through crisis intervention training, which teaches officers how to diffuse potentially dangerous situations involving both officers and inmates.

“Shortly after they went through the training, one of our officers talked someone out of swallowing a razor blade,” Stirling said. “If you’re going to cut yourself, you probably have no regard for others’ safety.”

Stirling said the thermal surveillance cameras are something that DOC officials are looking into for other facilities as well.

“My main focus is that public servants that work at the Department of Corrections are able to go home to their families at night,” he said.

©2014 The State (Columbia, S.C.)

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