Drones with weapons are latest prison threat

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Drones are emerging as the latest threat to Michigan prison security, but experts are divided about how to deal with them as the state prosecutes three Detroiters who 11 days ago allegedly used an aerial vehicle to deliver contraband inside an Ionia prison.

The Aug. 17 drop of three cells phones, razors and marijuana at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility was the third known drone intrusion at a Michigan prison this year, according to the state Department of Corrections. Other drone attempts, including a toy topped with two propellers, crashed into state correctional facilities or glided over the wall with no payloads.

It is the first time in state history in which the alleged pilots and getaway driver were arrested at the scene.

The alleged pilot and co-pilot — Patrick Corey Seaton Jr., 22, and Jonathan Larawn Roundtree, 33 — face felony smuggling charges along with the alleged driver, Daryl Steven Marshall, 34. They say they are innocent.

Drone and prison experts said these incidents are becoming more frequent in Michigan and across the nation. Although some experts say the risk can be met by increasing security measures like having more guards scan the skies for drones, others say there’s not much that can be done without policy changes.

Drones represent “a very serious threat to any prison in the United States,” said California security consultant Daniel Vasquez.

Vasquez, a former warden at San Quentin State Prison, recommends the state develop a policy to allow prison guards to “disable or shoot those drones down once they breach the active perimeter of the facility or its flight space.”

But a prison guard would need to be an excellent shot, carry a shotgun at all times and be aided by other guards continually scanning the skies, said Kevin Tamez, managing partner at the New Jersey-based security counseling firm MPM Group. The best bet would be jamming drone signals to shut them down mid-flight, he said, but the Federal Communications Commission forbids any entity but the federal government to do so.

It likely will take a major event to prompt new policies, Tamez said.

“When someone drops an AK-47 over a fence … and they have a major riot because these guys have guns,” he said, “then someone’s gonna scratch their head and say, ‘Gee wiz, maybe we should do something about this.’”

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said current prison surveillance systems are good enough to spot drones.

The bigger issue is filling hundreds of prison staff vacancies across the state so current employees don’t become bleary-eyed from working long overtime hours, Gautz said.

“In most cases, shooting down a drone is really the last and worst case you can resort to,” he said. Shooting it would require staff to spend hours scouring the yard for small bits of plastic and metal to ensure the pieces aren’t found by inmates and used to make weapons, he said.

How Ionia drop happened

It took about 90 minutes from when Ionia prison guards heard a drone buzzing Aug. 17, at 3:53 a.m. before local law enforcement arrested three “very cooperative” suspects by 5:21 a.m., according to interviews with Michigan State Police and prison officials.

The drone twice flew back and forth about 800 yards from where the pilot and co-pilot were standing on the shoulder of Lincoln Avenue, which runs behind two Ionia prisons to the north before intersecting with Wall Street, where the alleged getaway driver was waiting.

A corrections worker took photos of the first package, Gautz said. The drone hovered near officers for about two minutes before dropping the second package between two prisoner units, he said.

State Police say two suspects loaded the drone with cell phones, drugs and razors, dropped packages into the prison yard and flew it back to Lincoln Street. Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle Butler confirmed that Marshall is the suspected getaway driver, meaning Seaton Jr. and Roundtree are the suspected pilots.

Gautz said he could not disclose for whom the contraband was intended and said it could be the subject of ongoing litigation.

Competent pilots, a high-tech drone and wind likely aided the successful contraband drop, said Det. Sgt. Christian Clute, the lead Michigan State Police investigator on the case. Many drones usually crash into prison fences or walls, Gautz said.

Butler said he believes the three are connected to a similar drone smuggling run this month at a Carson City prison 50 miles north of Lansing, but State Police will not disclose details because the investigation is ongoing.

“We believe that they were also … at Carson City, and we’re investigating that,” Clute said.

On Aug. 11 at 2:30 a.m., corrections workers found multiple packages containing drugs and a cell phone, Gautz said. They figured out the items were delivered by drone after reviewing video footage that was later passed along to law enforcement, he said.

Police are now comparing video feed of those suspects with the Ionia drone suspects, Gautz said.

Another drone smuggling attempt at Handlon took place in the past year, but the contraband was confiscated by guards before inmates could get to it, he said.

The county prosecutor and magistrate decided the crimes for the Aug. 17 Ionia incident were severe enough to justify up to life in prison for Seaton Jr. and Roundtree.

Drones across America

Drones for smuggling drugs or other contraband are presenting a challenge for other state prisons, too.

A fight broke out in a Mansfield, Ohio prison two years ago after a drone dropped packages of heroin, marijuana and tobacco into an exercise yard. Guards used pepper spray to break up the melee, strip searched about 200 inmates and placed nine prisoners in solitary confinement.

Last year in Maryland, a former inmate and a prisoner were convicted of delivering contraband and attempted drug distribution after several nighttime drone missions that netted $6,000 in product sales per drop.

Security experts are paying closer attention to the threat that drones present after a South Carolina inmate used wire cutters in a prison escape that may have been dropped by an aerial vehicle. Some drones can carry 45 to 50 pounds of material, experts say, allowing them to drop tools or weapons to aid an escape.

While one expert suggests bullets, researchers at the Michigan Tech Human-Interactive Robotics Lab have developed a drone net gun attached to another drone that can fly the captured drone away in case it is explosive. But shooting a drone with a net gun could be challenging and expensive.

A better way would be to use technology to shut them down mid-flight, Tamez said. That would require a change in FCC policy, however, because only the federal government currently has the authority to jam drone signals.

Gautz said Michigan prison officials aren’t currently talking with the FCC or lawmakers about getting such technology.

Seventeen inmates have attempted to escape from state prisons from 2011 to 2016, and four were successful, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections. All four inmates were rearrested. Michigan’s prison population dropped about nearly 42,904 inmates to 41,122 during the period.

“Security practices will have to be enhanced to ensure that all areas to which inmates have access are carefully searched to identify contraband, before inmates are allowed access to an area,” said Rod Miller, president of Community Resources Services, a nonprofit prison services firm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Miller said corrections officers also will have to better supervise inmates when they’re outside of a prison building and be on higher alert for contraband and weapons that could be flown in. This means more staff and more money for beefed-up security, he said.

But even without drones, prison breaks are always a risk. More than a decade ago, 15 inmates escaped from a state prison using wire cutters and a gun thrown over the fence to fend off guards, Gautz said.

“And that was without a drone,” he said. “Nowadays the potential could be even worse.”