Are drones a viable solution for correctional staffing challenges?
They can be a threat to the prison environment – could they be an asset too?
By Shawn Roscoe
While corrections organizations have long struggled with overcrowding and funding gaps, recruitment and retention have now joined the growing list of challenges they face.
Correctional leaders are expected to operate more efficiently while frontline personnel do more with less in increasingly dangerous environments. It goes without saying that the backbone of correctional organizations is their people – but without qualified, trained and dedicated staff, daily operations will ultimately fail.
In recent years facilities in Georgia reported a 70% vacancy rate, while overtime for those holding the line in Nebraska has quadrupled over the past decade.  In his article on the stresses of working short-staffed, corrections expert Gary Cornelius concluded the two primary challenges facing corrections are safety and burnout. 
According to studies, 70% of correctional officers have their stress levels affected by short-staffed workplaces. This results in workers taking on more responsibilities, causing burnout and allowing security and potentially the welfare of inmates to suffer.  On top of performing their daily tasks, skeleton crews face an epidemic of inmate overdoses stemming from the flow of contraband that plagues secured facilities. Inmates notice when backup and relief are scarce and take advantage of these opportunities to traffic contraband or carry out assaults.
With turnover at an all-time high and vacancies exceeding 45% of allotted positions, facilities are desperate to find ways to address the staffing crisis.  Current staffing trends dictate that correctional organizations address their issues by investing in technologies that can serve as workforce multipliers. In corrections, investments are best measured by efficiency and the ability to improve safety and reduce work demands. Reducing the flow of illicit contraband in prisons is a step in the right direction toward decreasing safety risks, resource-intensive interdiction efforts and medical responses to overdoses.
Drones can be a threat
This influx of contraband taxes prison interdiction efforts, and with the rise of dangerous drugs like fentanyl, inmate overdoses have spiked while placing users, other inmates and responding officers at risk. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2001 to 2018, the number of people who died of drug or alcohol intoxication in state prisons rose by more than 600%, and in jails by more than 200%. 
States are pushing for legislation to allow the use of cellphone-jamming devices and spending millions of dollars on detection and interdiction programs to curb the use of inmate phones to coordinate violent attacks, traffic drugs and plan escapes. Prisons limited by budgetary constraints rely for help on close working relationships with local law enforcement agencies that face their own challenges. Although states like South Carolina have been successful in using these relationships to apprehend dozens of traffickers, some facilities are left to fight the battle alone. In addition to narcotics and weapons, passports and communication devices have been smuggled, suggesting a nexus to organized criminal elements. This became evident in Georgia in 2014 when federal and state law enforcement agencies conducted Operation Cellmate, successfully dismantling a drug-trafficking organization that used drones to deliver contraband into prisons, all orchestrated by an inmate serving a life sentence for multiple violent offenses. 
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This concept is not new or area-specific. In the past five years, America and Mexico have both experienced airdropping packages into prisons, resulting in increased altercations between inmates and safety issues for correctional staff.  If you want to know what smuggling into prisons using drones looks like, watch the opening scene of the HBO show “Mayor of Kingstown” episode “Drones.” A drone is shown flying over a prison, dropping drugs into the yard, which are then collected and prepared for distribution. This scene shows how drones can be an efficient smuggling tool.
As evident by the ongoing war in Ukraine, drones have changed the landscape of combat and proven to be an efficient and affordable tool to carry out lethal combat missions. But how does this impact correctional leaders, and how can technology designed to address the nefarious use of drones help with staffing issues or decrease population overdoses?
Unfortunately for prisons, the affordability and effectiveness of drones have catapulted their popularity among traffickers. With off-the-shelf units requiring little skill and no experience, it is no surprise they are frequently used to carry payloads into prisons; however, the majority are only discovered after crashing due to inexperienced pilots or exceeding the equipment’s capacities. This prompts one to wonder how many trips are successful and how many overdoses are a direct result of their missions.
Smugglers have begun using homemade and larger commercial drones and even moving smaller payloads to avoid detection. Since drones typically launch outside areas under surveillance and can map out flight paths and deliver packages with a touch of a few buttons, their success rate is often high. Of course, these challenges are not lost on correction workers or new to leadership, but the increase in documented drone incursions suggests they will continue to be a go-to means for traffickers. A good indicator of drone incursions for a facility might be a sudden uptick in overdoses and seized contraband. But how can drone technology benefit corrections?
Drones can be a tool
Due to budgetary constraints and staffing shortages, government agencies have turned to technology to supplement manpower and save money.  By using drones to conduct inspections and map out landscapes, the oil and power industries have saved resources for years. Law enforcement agencies now use drones as force multipliers to find lost children and missing persons, apprehend dangerous suspects and reconstruct crash scenes. Studies by the North Carolina Department of Transportation and State Highway Patrol concluded that pilots using drones could reconstruct complex crash scenes in 25 minutes, whereas using traditional methods would take over two hours. The study concluded that reducing man-hours decreased operational costs by 70% as well. 
This theory is being tested and proven by “drone as first responder” (DFR) programs with law enforcement agencies nationwide. DFR systems employ drones to respond to calls for service and provide detailed real-time updates to responding officers who need to formulate a safe approach. This could benefit correctional officers attempting to locate an escapee or responding to an altercation between inmates. There are manufacturers implementing autonomous drone systems designed to complete routine perimeter and rooftop checks that would reduce the workloads of those already being stretched thin.
The concept of relying on drone technology in correctional settings is not entirely foreign. In November 2022, Montana was presented with innovative plans to address vacancies including drone technology as a solution. 
Ideally, prisons would be equipped with autonomous drone systems outfitted with AI technology and infrared and thermal imaging capabilities capable of conducting routine checks at the press of a button.  Nevada prisons have been introduced to a similar system designed to decrease response times and improve surveillance, which would decrease responses to false alerts. This would benefit organizations with a high percentage of their positions unfilled. In addition to having a strategic aerial view, having detailed schematics of the facility created by drone mapping software could be useful for training purposes and enable faster and safer responses to dangerous situations. Specialized manufacturers have designed drones for inside confined spaces that relay critical information without placing officers at risk.
Drones won’t ever replace frontline officers, but they have consistently proven to be instrumental in helping accomplish goals safely and efficiently – two things correctional institutions are constantly looking to improve on.
It is common for public safety organizations to be stuck behind the eight ball. However, counter-drone solutions (cUAS) are an opportunity for corrections to be proactive and get in front of the problem. These systems use a variety of radar, camera, acoustic and radio frequency technology to detect drones that enter predetermined airspace. They can detect drones from great distances. A quality counter-drone solution will alert personnel when a drone has breached their airspace and provide staff with the coordinates of the pilot so cooperating authorities can plan the apprehension. These cUAS systems provide prisons the ability to curb the contraband being smuggled in by drone, thus decreasing overdoses and the medical responses they demand.
Of course, budgetary considerations matter, but with increasing vacancies and inmate overdoses, correctional organizations would be wise to at least explore counter-drone solutions as an interdiction option. Affordability is important, so do the research and consultations wisely. Some organizations have been successful in acquiring drones and counter-drone solutions through grants or affordable lease options. But as with all investments, proper research is vital. No one wants to spend valuable resources on systems that do not work.
Ensuring the system is adequate for the facility’s needs is important in determining whether the investment was worthwhile. Can the system detect the pilot, and is the data properly recorded for arrest and prosecution purposes? Is the system easy to use? Having a tool is only beneficial when it’s used properly, so asking these questions before deciding will save valuable resources. Although the regulatory landscape around drone technology continues to change, the importance of standardizing training and operating practices is crucial, and at a time when efficiency is vital, resources are scarce and nefarious drones remain a serious threat to correctional institutions, its important prisons are prepared.
Ignoring a problem is not eliminating it. The staffing crisis for correctional organizations will likely not disappear soon, and neither will inmate overdoses that result from contraband. Correctional staff and administrations are expected to safeguard our communities against those deemed a danger to them. There is no single solution to remedy the challenges prison administrations face daily. But as recruiting efforts continue to be a challenge, adapting to new processes and adopting new technologies to maximize efficiency are options worth considering.
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2. Cornelius G. (April 20, 2022.) Fallout: The stress of ‘working short’ in corrections. Lexipol.
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4. Peterson L. (December 30, 2017.) State of emergency declared in W. Va. jails, prisons due to staffing level. Police1.
5. Schwartzapfel B, Jenkins J. (July 15, 2021.) Overdose deaths in state prisons have jumped dramatically since 2001. NPR.
6. Major drug trafficking ring operated inside Georgia prisons using drones, prison guards. (March 7, 2019.) WJCL.
7. Peterson R. (July 18, 2018.) State and Local Agencies Turn to Tech as a Workforce Multiplier. StateTech.
8. Abril D. (March 9, 2022.) Drones, robots, license plate readers: Police grapple with community concerns as they turn to tech for their jobs. Washington Post.
9. Girten N. (November 16, 2022.) Montana Department of Corrections researching drones as possible solution to staffing shortage. Great Falls Tribune.
10. Careless J. (February 21, 2018.) Eye in the sky: Using drones to boost correctional facility security. James Careless. Corrections1.
About the author
Shawn Roscoe is a police investigator for the city of Greensboro, North Carolina and an instructor with Public Safety UAS. He has extensive experience in violent crime reduction tactics, gang and narcotics investigations, drone training and counterdrone technologies.