Call it the drone war. And South Carolina's prisons are fighting it with cutting-edge technology.
Drones drop tools used for daring prison breaks. They bring drugs and cellphones to inmates waiting in recreation yards. They can ignite riots among prisoners scrambling to grab the special deliveries.
As contraband smugglers become more inventive, South Carolina prison officials want to match their high technology. Last month, the state's high- and medium-security prisons installed mobile drone-detection equipment that senses the tiny aircraft and alerts perimeter patrols, sparking security measures to intercept illicit deliveries.
Officials said statistics showed the need to ground the modern-day con air. Last year, 29 drone sightings were reported at South Carolina prisons. And through early March, six more had been spotted, putting 2018 on pace to top last year’s tally. Others have likely gone unseen.
"I started hearing more and more reports about drones coming in, so we started looking at what we needed to do," S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said. "As technology advances, so do we have to react."
Legislation that would restrict drone use around prisons and prescribe criminal penalties for violators also has gained steam in the weeks since a riot killed seven inmates at Lee Correctional Institution. Officials partially attributed the melee to contraband disputes. But like the struggle to block cellphone signals at prisons, the authority to restrict airspace also lies with the federal government.
The small remote-control aircraft have created some havoc for Palmetto State prisons.
In May 2017, two men were arrested and accused of flying contraband into Kershaw Correctional Institution in the Upstate, officials said.
Then in July, Jimmy Causey was serving a life sentence when he cut through fences and escaped the maximum-security Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville. Stirling said Causey had used wirecutters delivered by a drone, a high-tech method that captured headlines worldwide.
Causey was caught three days later in Texas.
Other prisoners have been accused of arranging air mail.
Thomas Lawton Evans would become known in mid-February when Charleston police said he kidnapped a 4-year-old girl less than two weeks after his prison release.
During Evans' time behind bars, officers at Kershaw noticed that his cell window was smashed and replaced with a false plastic pane, prison records showed. When authorities confronted him about the damage, Evans acknowledged that a drone found at the facility the day before was intended for him. The drone's payload and Evans' plans for it, though, were unclear.
Stirling's interest in the issue was piqued by a drone sighting a few years ago at Lee, the site of the deadly riot last month. Police captured those responsible for that unauthorized flight, he said.
"We were seeing this across the country," he said. "Other (prison) directors shared similar stories."
Over the next two summers, Stirling said, he tasked security officials with evaluating the technology and coming up with ideas.
Some detection equipment can sense radio frequencies from drones as soon as the aircraft are turned on. Sophisticated systems pinpoint the GPS coordinates and altitude of the device, and sometimes the operator's location. Some have a range of more than a half-mile in any direction.
At prisons designated at the top two security levels, experts installed detection devices in "rovers," or vehicles that patrol the perimeter. Stirling did not immediately provide the cost or manufacturer of the equipment.
Officers cannot shoot down drones that are detected, Stirling said. But they can summon local law enforcement to investigate and search for pilots.
Stirling would not discuss all the emergency procedures activated when drones are sighted. But they have been used as recently as earlier this week, he said.
'An obvious danger'
For pilots caught near prisons, state lawmakers want to create penalties. But those measures can go only so far because of federal regulations.
Arlene Salac, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the agency isn't aware of good reasons for hobbyists to fly over prisons. But there could be legitimate exceptions, she said.
"States can’t restrict airspace," she said, "but they can restrict drone takeoffs and landings from state property."
Despite the limitations, state Sen. Shane Martin said the problem is too concerning to ignore. The Upstate Republican threw his support behind bill to outlaw flying a drone within 500 feet along the ground or 250 feet in the air from a prison or local jail. Violators could be fined $500, jailed for 30 days and lose their drones.
It also calls on the Corrections Department to petition the FAA to declare prison airspace as restricted, though Stirling described a similar effort already underway.
Martin said inaction by the federal authorities warranted the move. The Senate unanimously approved the bill in February. A House committee this week recommended its passage, though the legislative session ends Thursday.
"These episodes only will grow and be more clever," the senator said. "I won't wait on the federal government or a federal judge to deal with an obvious danger to South Carolina."
Stirling also realizes the new technology and new laws won't thwart smugglers entirely.
"We know they are going to keep on trying," he said.