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HomeTechnology & Science'Drone pandemic' sees drugs, weapons, cellphones smuggled into Kingston prison

‘Drone pandemic’ sees drugs, weapons, cellphones smuggled into Kingston prison

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Hundreds of drones smuggling drugs, weapons and cellphones have soared over coiled barbed wire and high concrete walls at the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont., in recent years.

The frequency of flights has grown steadily since 2018, with 99 reported last year alone, according to statistics obtained by CBC through access-to-information (ATIP) laws.

That’s nearly 10 times the number recorded five years ago, evidence of a growing issue across the country. Officials with the union for correctional workers describe this as a “pandemic” that puts inmates and staff in danger.

“To me, it’s an emergency,” said Jeff Wilkins, national president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

“We’re talking about a serious threat to health and safety.”

The union has raised the concern of drone drops for more than a decade, the president said, but they’ve been left without the tools needed to tackle the issue, calling for support while saying Correctional Service Canada (CSC) continues “dragging their feet” instead of installing radar or interim solutions.

“At Collins Bay it’s out of control,” said Chris Bucholtz, the union’s Ontario regional president, adding he believes the numbers provided by CSC underreport the issue.

Value of 1 drop could be $100K

A pair of access-to-information requests filed by CBC reveal the scale of the problem.

The first shows there were at least 247 drone drops at Collins Bay between 2018 and 2022. That’s compared to 60 in total tallied over the same period at the three other federal correctional facilities in the Kingston area.

A separate ATIP provided information on contraband seized at Collins Bay from Jan. 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2022.

Over that time there were roughly 600 drug-related seizures and 250 weapons seizures, according to a summary provided by CSC.

“Incident reports suggest that most contraband introduced into the institution was via Unmanned Air Vehicles (drones),” it notes, adding the institutional value for the material seized each year was in the millions.

“To put this in perspective, the contents of a single UAV package introduced into the institution could have an institutional value of $100,000,” the summary reads.

Collins Bay among top 2 sites for drops: union

Bucholtz describes the situation as a “drone pandemic.”

Payloads include cellphones, drugs and ceramic knives that can cut through protective vests. Major drops are followed by a spike in violence and overdoses felt by both inmates and correctional officers, he said.

With its turrets, towers and bright red roof, Collins Bay is sometimes ironically compared to the castle at Disneyland, though life inside is no fairy tale. The facility, first opened in 1930, now houses minimum, medium and maximum security areas with capacity for 760 inmates. 

Statistics obtained by CBC show the number of drone drops at the Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ont., has been steadily rising since 2018, with 99 reported last year alone. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Bucholtz said he believes its location within Kingston’s city limits, surrounded by fields and marshland, are part of the reason it’s so popular with drone pilots.

Wilkins, the union’s national president, said it’s one of the top two sites in Canada for UAV activity.

CSC said radar would be in place by 2022

Drones are also a major problem at the Donnacona Institution just west of Quebec City, which is the only location where work is underway to install and test drone-detecting technology, according to the union.

That’s despite a pledge from CSC to spend $6 million installing radar at six facilities, including Collins Bay, by March 2022.

CSC did not agree to an interview. In a statement to CBC, it did not directly respond to questions about the prevalence of drone drops at Collins Bay or the status of its plan to install drone-detection technology.

The service said it has “counter-drone measures” in place at “many” institutions, but declined to share any specifics about where or what they entail, citing “safety and security reasons.”

CSC said it continues to work with vendors on ways to detect drones in its airspace.

“Once in service, we will measure the performance of these systems and determine the potential for broader, national deployment,” the statement read.

A man with short grey hair and wearing black-framed sunglasses stands outside with a serious expression on his face. Behind him is a grassy lawn and a prison with high walls and towers.
Chris Bucholtz, Ontario regional president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, says the situation at Collins Bay is out of control. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Huge reward, low cost

Detection technology has been around for years and is rising along with the popularity of drones, according to Peter Jones, president of Ottawa-based Version 2.

The company supplies places such as airports and military bases with the ability to find out what’s flying over them. Units range from $30,000 to $50,000.

Jones said the approach tracks drones based on radio signals and can determine where the UAV is, what direction it’s travelling and its history.

Drones are difficult to spot with the naked eye, he explained, so installing technology to assist is the “most basic solution” and will help catch 80 to 90 per cent of them.

A man with long brown hair holds a white drone with four propellers. In the background a laptop can be seen sitting the back of an SUV.
Peter Jones, president of Ottawa-based drone detection company Version 2, says technology can help identify, track and combat UAVs. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Jones said a correctional setting is a tempting target as the risk of losing a drone is outweighed by the potential payoff.

“A drone that can bring in a payload … can cost as little as $500 and maybe go up to $1,500,” he said. “There’s probably a huge reward for a relatively low cost.”

Wilkins said the union has been told the detection technology at Donnacona is working, though it’s still in a trial phase. 

He added there’s no reason it can’t be expanded to other institutions across the country, but far more than $6 million is needed if CSC is serious about stopping the problem.

Given the lengthy procurement process and how many years the union has already been asking for help fighting UAVs, its president isn’t optimistic.

“Our fear is that by the time these are implemented in the institutions, that the technology will change so much that they may be useless,” he said.

Delivery right to cell window

In the meantime, the union has worked with correctional staff at drone hotspots to come up with interim low-tech solutions that include netting over exercise yards and stronger windows.

“Believe it or not, these drones are delivering straight to windows, in some cases,” said Wilkins, explaining inmates smash them out to receive drop-offs directly from their cell, similar to fast food delivery.

A map is shown on a laptop screen. It has a radar-like overlay, with one quadrant coloured red. The red box with the words "drone detected" appears in the corner of the screen.
Version 2’s technology uses radio signals to track and identify drones. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Correctional officers at Collins Bay informally track the number of broken windows and have found 23 so far this year, according to the union.

Union officials said drones are so prevalent it calls for dedicated staffing over and above the usual complement — specifically to keep an eye on the sky.

Unless CSC makes some immediate changes, the problem is only going to continue to escalate, Wilkins said.

“As we speak right now, there is no doubt in my mind that there’s somebody that is either developing a package, putting a drone together or flying one into an institution,” he said.

“It is that common now. It’s daily across the country.”

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