Incoming: Drone drug drop in prison third in a year

In this Feb. 13, 2014 file photo, a drone is demonstrated in Brigham City, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

IONIA, Mich. (WOOD) — The pre-dawn flight of a drone into a state prison is renewing concerns about the threat posed by the small aircraft.

The drone dropped off two packages into the yard at Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility about 4 a.m. Thursday. Prosecutors say the packages, recovered by corrections officers, contained marijuana, a cell phone and a razor blade.

Police arrested three Detroit-area men who face charges of smuggling contraband into a prison — a felony that carries up to five years behind bars. They are being held at the Ionia County Jail.

Authorities are trying to determine the intended recipients of the drone’s payload, who could also face charges.

“It’s an absolute threat,” Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said of drones. “This is a nightmare scenario: drones with the capability to drop packages — whether they contain drugs, cell phones, weapons, all the bad things you can think of.”

Gautz said the drone was high-tech, not a toy. It dropped two separate packages in the prison yard, near a housing unit, in the dark of night.

But two corrections officers heard it, tracked it, discovered the packages, and, working with police, caught the suspects not far away. They later recovered the drone.

It was the third known drone intrusion at a Michigan prison, all in the last year, Gautz said. The first two — at Handlon and at the Carson City Correctional Facility — delivered packages of drugs that were discovered by officers. In those cases, nobody was arrested and the drones were not recovered.

“We’re pretty confident that these are the first three, but of course, if you didn’t catch it, how do you know?” Gautz said.

He said he knows of at least two other cases in which drones that weren’t carrying payloads crashed into Michigan prisons. It wasn’t clear if they were failed attempts by smugglers to test the drones, he said.

“In the past, people’s ability to introduce drugs was solely dependent on the strength of their arm,” he said, referring to smugglers who toss drugs over prison fences.

“Now, we have to worry about the length of the signal of the GPS on their drone. They can be miles away,” he continued. “Those are the things that keep us up at night and keep us thinking of new ways to stop them.”

Gautz said MDOC is pushing for legislation to toughen laws against smuggling contraband. That now carries up to five years in prison. They also are studying whether to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to make prisons no-fly zones. Some companies have suggested high-tech solutions, including drones that chase the intruding aircraft and catch them with nets.

A neighbor who lives on the back side of Handlon prison said the drone invasion didn’t surprise him.

“Not in today’s age, it don’t,” he said.

He said it seems like a lot of trouble to sneak in some marijuana, a phone and a razor blade.

“Well, people will do anything for a high these days, I guess,” he said.

But he said he was surprised when police found the drone Thursday morning, ditched by the smugglers in his barn directly across the street from the prison.

“I think they ought to make prisons no-fly zones. That’s what should happen,” he said.

Either way, he said, he wouldn’t live anywhere else:

“I think it’s cool living behind a prison. It’s the safest place in town.”