ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - It's now a crime to use a drone to deliver contraband to any state or local detention center in Georgia.
Many people might be surprised to hear it wasn't a crime before. Welcome to the world of trying to keep up with 21st-century criminals.
It's always been a crime to smuggle cell phones or drugs into a Georgia prison or county jail. But lawmakers made it an additional felony if you use a drone. As we've learned before, the skies are filled with potential suspects.
Last summer the Georgia Department of Corrections invited us to Autry State Prison near Albany. Its isolated location -- with thick stands of trees surrounding the prison -- makes it an ideal target for drone operators to launch, drop their cargo and hustle away unseen.
The Georgia Department of Corrections reported spotting a drone 300 times near state prisons last year, nearly 200 of those at Autry. They were testing a pilot program designed to sound an alarm if a drone violated the prison's airspace. We were asked to bring the SKYFOX Drone to test the system.
It worked. Within seconds of crossing the invisible boundary high above the prison, alarms rang out across the facility. Inmates immediately headed to their cells. Corrections officers scoured the skies looking for the intruder.
"Right now we're getting a lot of tobacco, marijuana and we're actually getting cellphones," warden Walter Berry told us then.
The trouble is actually catching the people responsible. Only seven of those 300 drones were ever recovered. Two arrests have been made, largely from fingerprints found on the seized drone. The rest get away before authorities can send units outside the prison gates.
But when they do catch them, they will now face an additional felony. You can thank a state senator who's never actually been inside a state prison.
"It just seemed like something that needed to happen," explained Kay Kirkpatrick (R-Cobb).
Senator Kirkpatrick wrote the bill that makes drone delivery a crime at state prisons and county jails. She was stunned to hear about those 300 drones last year flying over the two prisons testing out that drone detection system.
"I had no idea," she admitted. "But it makes sense because drones are pretty ubiquitous."
Both of those drone detection pilot programs have ended. They didn't cost taxpayers anything. Soon the state must decide whether to spend tax dollars to make those systems permanent and perhaps install them at the other 31 facilities across the state. Otherwise, the new law may make little difference.
Senator Kirkpatrick wants to hear the price tag for those systems before committing her support. But prison officials still aren't sure whether the investment should go toward installing better jamming systems for the cellphones, the idea being if the cellphones don't work, the drones that are delivering them won't be as popular.