Of course, it is not children who commit these robberies. These are people who run the jobs inside and out. Internet-connected cell phones and electronic money transfers through Green Dot prepaid cards or mobile payment services like Cash App — often with an advance to outside conspirators who receive the balance on delivery — make them much easier to coordinate.
“Honestly, prisoners for the longest time turned inward,” says Stirling. “Suddenly contraband became very lucrative for people smuggling it from the outside and also for prisoners and prison gangs to distribute drugs and contraband inside.”
If the farm is dry, a pound of tobacco product can go for anywhere from $800 to $4,000, a flip phone for about $1,500 and an Android or iPhone for up to $3,000, said David Simon, a major with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office of South Carolina. And the shadow market for drone contraband appears to be growing. In South Carolina, facilities have recorded 424 drone sightings since 2017 and seen contraband numbers increase dramatically over the years, with 29 recorded in 2017, 166 in 2021 and 108 through May of this year.
Jeffrey Wilkins, the president of the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says that in the 49 institutions that the union represents, drones are seen or detected by radar systems on a daily basis. Mid-sized security facilities with operated windows and slightly punctured mesh screens are more or less payment machines. “The technology is so advanced that they can almost GPS the thing right to their cell window. They just reach out of their cell windows and take it from the drones.”
Once inside, drugs and weapons trigger routine outbreaks of violence between inmates and against correctional officers. About twice a week, Wilkins told me, a national monitoring center receives a call from a prison where a corrections officer can’t finish a shift because of an injury that requires medical attention.
“The different kinds of weapons that we’re seeing now are things that we’ve never seen before, like ceramic blades, knives, brass knuckles,” says Wilkins. “The amount of drugs that have been seized is just unbelievable.”
According to data from the Correctional Service of Canada, which Wilkins shared with WIRED, out of approximately 12,000 inmates in medium and maximum security institutions, assault incidents increased by 9.6 percent from April 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022, and increased by a staggering 185 percent in structured intervention units that house inmates more separately from the general population. Meanwhile, seizures of mobile phones, calling cards, mobile phone chargers and SIM cards across all institutions increased from around 100 to 1,100 between 2017 and 2021.
The growing seriousness of the problem, in the United States and internationally, is likely part of the reason Judge Dudley Bowen of the Southern District of Georgia sentenced Lo and Toure to twelve months in prison under the advisory guidelines for their plea agreements.
“What is important for others to know,” he says at Toure’s sentencing, “is that on the one hand, if I try to get nine or ten mobile phones inside the prison, I will just get a three-year probationary period, maybe I have to go down to the Salvation Army and make some beds or something. Or, if I try to do the same, it looks like my option will be federal prison.”