South Carolina prison begins using drones to watch inmates, first in U.S.

A drone being used by the South Carolina Department of Corrections. (WCIV)

South Carolina is believed to be the first prison system in the country to use drones to fight contraband.

“As I walk around you can see my footprints in the ground,” says the drone operator at the Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia.

It's an eye in the sky, a drone using thermal technology believed to be the first time drones have been used as 24-hour surveillance at a corrections facility.

“This is instrumental in a number of ways; at nighttime we are able to know the location of a suspect, know the safety, know if they throw a package because generally they’d been wearing a backpack and we can see the heat coming off of it, we commonly see that we can track that drop it and run it,” explained the operator.

Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, hired drone operators with military drone experience in Iraq to fly drone missions day and night inside the prison grounds.

“You are seeing us use technology to do surveillance our prisons from the sky. We are going to show up if people are coming into our prisons, up to no good, there is a great potential that we are going to see them,” says Stirling.

He said he's even using confiscated drones to help officers on the ground to spot trouble.

“One of the drones out there we actually confiscated, so we are not only fighting fire with fire we are using their instruments also,” said Stirling.

It’s part of a larger surveillance program, a multi-tiered approach including a nerve center only a month old.

“We have a 24 /7 surveillance operation center where we will be able to monitor the cameras in the dorms and on the perimeter,” says Stirling.

While we were there, inmates flew what prison officials call a “kite"—a string with a note attached.

It was caught on surveillance and officers soon responded.

Director Stirling says technology will play a key role in keeping the prisons safe, but he says he still needs more officers inside as well which is why he says he’ll keep pushing for money in the budget to increase pay and personnel for guards.

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