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Drone sneaks package into Michigan prison

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A drone sneaked contraband into a Michigan prison in May, but the breach went undetected for nearly two months, according to State Police documents The Detroit News obtained through an open records request.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said Friday that an after-the-fact review of video surveillance discovered that prisoners at Ionia’s Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility recovered two packages dropped by a drone. It is the first time that law enforcement and state prison officials have confirmed a successful drone delivery of contraband to Michigan inmates.

A drop from a drone (not this one) into Ionia prison went undetected for several weeks, officials say.

State Police and prison officials suspect that the packages contained Alcatel cellphones that were later found inside the prison.

State prison staffers had not previously disclosed that phones and other contraband may have been delivered to prisoners on May 29. They were the same brand of cellphones involved in attempted drone drops inside Carson City and Ionia prisons in August, according to the report by State Police Detective Sgt. Christian Clute that The News obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The revelation comes as security experts nationwide are warning that drones are emerging as a serious threat to prison security.

A package with phones, tobacco and marijuana was recovered outside the fence at the Ionia prison in late May. But two other packages of contraband were successfully delivered on the same day, according to the report.

“A source inside the prison informed MDOC staff that it was the result of an unsuccessful drone delivery,” according to Clute’s report. “It was later learned that two packages were successfully delivered (confirmed through video) to prisoners via drone. After the successful drone delivery, two phones were found inside the facility on prisoners.”

At least one Ionia prisoner may have had a phone for two months, the report indicates. The State Police report said “an ALCATEL brand cell phone was found on a prisoner” July 27 at the Ionia prison.

Two others had phones confiscated from them, but State Police don’t yet know how long they had the phones, said Clute, the lead investigator on the issue.

“We don’t know,” Clute told The Detroit News on Friday, “because they could still be in the prison. We don’t even know what was in the packages, to be honest.”

The Corrections Department didn’t mention the state’s first verified successful prison drone drop before because “we don’t discuss all introductions of contraband,” and officials weren’t certain that cellphones they discovered inside the Ionia prison in July were delivered by a drone, Gautz said.

Prison officers reviewed video footage from May showing inmates picking up a package, he said. Then in July they found several inmates with cellphones, he said.

Clute said Friday he could not disclose the names of the prisoners who were discovered with the cellphones because the issue is still under investigation and the inmates in question have not yet been charged with any crimes.

The Corrections Department previously told the media about two packages recovered Aug. 17 containing cellphones, razors and marijuana inside the Ionia prison, where local law enforcement arrested three suspects accused of delivering contraband.

Detroiters Patrick Corey Seaton Jr., 22, Jonathan Larawn Roundtree, 33, and Daryl Steven Marshall, 34, now face felony smuggling charges related to the August Ionia drone incident. Roundtree and Marshall could face life in prison because of prior felony convictions, while Seaton Jr. faces five felony counts involving contraband delivery that each carry a maximum sentence of 71/2 years in prison.

State officials decided to announce the arrests in August because “that was the first time the department has ever seen contraband come in, find it before prisoners got to it and effectuate an arrest immediately after,” Gautz said.

He said in August that a past drone attempt at the Ionia prison at an unspecified time this year was unsuccessful because prison staff seized dropped contraband before inmates could get it.

Experts are divided on the best strategy to combat drones. A California consultant has advocated shooting down the unmanned flying vehicles, an idea Michigan prison officials reject.

Other experts have warned that it would be expensive to hire additional staff to try to detect drones before they fly into prison air space. Another consultant has advocated jamming drone signals to shut them down mid-flight, but the Federal Communications Commission forbids any entity outside of the federal government from such actions.

“We are very concerned about drones being used for smuggling, and we have implemented ... certain detection and safety precautions so that hopefully in the future any drone delivery will be detected,” Clute said, adding that he could not reveal the new security measures.