Prisons eye using drones

Warren County prisons could be test sites for drone plan.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is considering using unmanned aerial vehicles as eyes in the skies over two state prisons in Warren County — Lebanon Correctional Institution and Warren Correctional Institution.

DRC Managing Director of Operations Ed Voorhies said the department is studying the feasibility of using drones to improve security at the prisons.

The state just opened a 30-day window to collect public comment about the idea. After that, prison officials will decide whether to start testing at the two prisons in Warren County.

“This is in no way an approach to try to replace live staff members with technology,” Voorhies said. “This would be an augmentation of our existing security staff.”

DRC is looking at three drone options to carry cameras above prison property: a tethered helium balloon, a quad-copter and a fixed-wing vehicle. The potential costs and savings have not yet been calculated, Voorhies said.

The cameras may be equipped with infrared sensors to detect people outside the fences approaching after dark to throw contraband — tobacco, drugs or even weapons — inside for inmates to pick up. “Right now we have difficulty detecting that kind of an external threat,” Voorhies said.

ACLU of Ohio lobbyist Gary Daniels said the DRC will need policies in place for how the technology will be used. “We are in a state in this country where government seems to want to surveil all of our whereabouts and what it is that we’re up to in the name of anti-terrorism or just because they want to do it,” he said. While there is little expectation of privacy on prison property, there is a potential for misuse if the cameras are used beyond the prison perimeter, Daniels said.

Christopher Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association which represents prison workers, said, “We aren’t opposed to new technologies or ways to save money, but evidence shows that assaults on staff and prison violence are best handled by an increase in staff, not an increase in security cameras, better fencing or upgrades to technology.”

“DR&C has adopted plenty of new technologies through the years that have hardly moved the needle in terms of violence or contraband levels. We would caution the agency not to ascribe too much importance to new methods such as this.”

There have been news reports, mostly in other countries, of people using drones to drop contraband inside prison yards. Voorhies said that hasn’t been tried in Ohio as far as he knows.

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