Sunshine Week: Drones flying over state prison could be carrying contraband, keeps guards on high alert

  • A drone is seen hovering over the State House during the filming of a documentary in Concord on March 5. A new bill would further limit where drones can fly in the state. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • A quadcopter, a type of drone, is seen hovering over the State House Plaza during the filming of a documentary in Concord on Saturday, March 5, 2016.(ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Corrections Officer Scott LeBlanc watched from a guard tower at the state prison in Concord as a drone passed over the north yard, hovered above the staff parking lot, and then disappeared into the night sky.

Over the following two hours, the drone appeared twice more above the correctional facility, its red and green lights piercing the darkness, before it dropped out of sight about 10:30 p.m., according to an incident report from Feb. 9.

On nine separate occasions over the last six months, corrections workers spotted a drone flying over the prison, according to documents provided by the New Hampshire Department of Corrections.

As drone sightings become more frequent at the prison, corrections officials are increasingly concerned the devices could be used to drop drugs, weapons or other contraband into the facility.

Prisons across the country are also grappling with the ability of drones operated by outsiders to bypass traditional security measures.

For example, a fight broke out among inmates at the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Ohio last August after a drone dropped a package full of marijuana, tobacco and heroin into the recreation yard. At an Oklahoma state penitentiary, a drone carrying two 12-inch hacksaw blades, nearly an ounce of methamphetamine and a cell phone crashed into the prison yard last October.

Drones have never dropped contraband into the state prison in Concord, officials said, but sightings can send the facility into a frenzy.

“It puts us in this high-intense security level because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Commissioner William Wrenn said. “We don’t know if it’s just someone photographing, if it’s someone who intends to drop contraband.”

Soon after LeBlanc first spotted the drone shortly after 7:45 p.m. on Feb. 9, he alerted three superiors, the report shows. Officials also reported two drone sightings last August, one last October, and five last November. That sum doesn’t include drones that may have gone unseen.

When DOC officials see a drone over the prison, they call the Concord Police Department, Wrenn said. But law enforcement has never caught one of the pilots. And even if police did find the drone operator, it’s unclear if that person would face any changes.

Commercial drones have exploded in popularity recently, with officials estimating 1 million drones were sold last Christmas alone. The Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates national airspace, recently started requiring owners to register their drones. More than 400,000 have been put into the national database already.

FAA rules forbid drones from flying in restricted airspace, mostly around airports, although some restrictions exist near high-profile locations such as the White House. Temporary drone restrictions can also be implemented, such as for large sporting events.

But the FAA doesn’t prohibit drones from flying over prisons.

It would be difficult to charge pilots with a crime, Wrenn said. “FAA’s position is that laws already govern contraband, and we should rely on those.”

A bill working its way through the New Hampshire State House would prohibit people from flying drones within 500 feet of certain “critical” buildings and structures that include detention centers. But the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted Tuesday to recommend the bill be killed.

“The federal government is going to preempt whatever states do,” said Rep. John Burt, a Goffstown Republican who voted against the bill.

The Department of Corrections supports the bill. Several other states, including Louisiana, California, Wisconsin and Michigan, have passed or are considering similar laws.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Neal Kurk, said there will be an effort on the floor to overturn the committee’s recommendation.

The bill has “very basic limits that would protect people from abuse of drones, while still allowing the greatest possible beneficial use,” said Kurk, a Weare Republican.

Without the law, Kurk said, drone flights above the prison could increase and that’s worrisome for corrections officials.

“The last thing I want to do is have the prison attract all these folks flying their drones over all day long, and our corrections officers go crazy trying to monitor them,” Wrenn said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or at

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