FORSYTH, Ga. -
The fundamental job of a prison guard has always been to keep bad people from getting outside the prison walls.
But a FOX 5 I-Team investigation discovered prison staff in Georgia have a new, high-tech mission: keeping drones from landing inside the walls to deliver smuggled cellphones.
"They're attaching these cellphones to the bottom of the drone and delivering them like Amazon wants to do?" asked FOX 5 I-Team reporter Randy Travis.
"Correct," responded Georgia Department of Corrections head of investigations Ricky Myrick. "Trying to find ways to fight it is a different story."
For years the FOX 5 I-Team followed the state's attempts to block cellphones from being smuggled into Georgia prisons. Authorities complained inmates used the phones to harass victims or witnesses, coordinate crimes inside other prisons, and keep their finger on the action outside.
"They can continue to run their business as the No. 1 guy from inside a prison cell," pointed out Myrick. "In real time. Same for a gang leader."
The state asked Facebook to shut down around 20 inmate pages each month, pages created with pictures and videos shot on smuggled cellphones. Prison staff sometimes sneaked the phones past security where they can sell for as much $1500. Each month, authorities announced the arrest of staffers accused of smuggling in contraband.
But the Drone Wars... have opened a frustrating new front. Now staff has to keep their eyes looking up at the night sky.
A security video obtained by the FOX 5 I-Team showed a drone flying over the fence line at Calhoun State Prison one night in 2013. Dangling on a rope below, authorities believed, was a cache of cellphones. They surmised that a corrupt guard usually pops a door for the inmate to run outside the yard, collect their phones and return to their cell, the timing coordinated with an already smuggled cellphone.
Authorities eventually found that drone inside the prison yard. No one ever found what the drone delivered that night. Myrick estimated as many as eight cellphones could have been attached.
So far, authorities recovered four drones inside or near state prisons, all flown at night. All of them, chief investigator Myrick believed, built to make repeat deliveries.
"We have no way of gauging how many attempts the drones we're in possession of have made nor how many occur every night," Myrick admitted.
In one case, acting on a tip investigators raided a nearby hotel where they say they found a working drone and a collection of cellphones.
In another case, criminals responded to an on-line post advertising a drone for sale. Instead of buying the drone, they asked would the owner be interested in flying it over a prison to drop off contraband? Turns out, the owner selling the drone was a Mitchell County sheriff's deputy. He alerted prison investigators who conducted a sting operation and arrested the would-be smugglers.
Then, late last year, authorities caught their biggest break so far. They discovered a drone inside the Wilcox State prison yard, with four cell phones and a blue tooth earpiece still attached.
On the drone itself, investigators located a fingerprint. A print they say belonged to Greg Spurlock.
According to police records, Spurlock was a member of the Cash Money Boys gang. The 23-year-old also served time in the Georgia prison system. He was paroled in 2012 and lives in Atlanta.
The FOX 5 I-Team was there when prison authorities made their first-ever arrest of someone accused of delivering cellphones by drone.
"Are you concerned that there are guys on the inside who see how profitable smuggled cell phones can be, are going back outside when they're released and making it a business?" asked Randy.
"Unfortunately, that is very common," agreed Myrick. That is what we're seeing. It's a very profitable market for them."
Authorities have explored all options to combat the drone deliveries, including installing expensive drone blocking technology. But they're reached no decision.
They realized the urgency here, because there are ideas even more dangerous than drone-delivered cell phones.
"Could you put a handgun under here and fly it in?" asked Randy as he held one of the seized drones.
"Very easily," confirmed Myrick. "And that's what scares us. The only reason why we haven't seen one at this point in time is that the inmates themselves must not want them inside either. Cause they would work just as easily as attaching a couple of cell phones to it."