South Carolina Using Heat-Seeking, Night Vision Drones to Surveil Inmates

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South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) officials announced plans Thursday to use drones to keep tabs on people behind bars in the state. The news represents an about-face for the department, which fought for years to keep drones away from their facilities, blaming them for delivering contraband to inmates.

The drones have heat-sensing and night vision capabilities and will be used across South Carolina's 21 prisons. SCDC Director Bryan Stirling had two military veterans hired to travel between the facilities, monitoring inmates from 400 feet above with the help of remote controls and video displays. 

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"No one will even be able to know we're up there, because it's pretty high up," Stirling said Thursday as the pilots flew the drones in front of a crowd of reporters. "I think you're seeing the future of corrections, right here."

Stirling said that South Carolina is the first state in the US to use drones to surveill inmates, which he noted the SCDC has been doing for the past few months.

A bill was passed by South Carolina's General Assembly May 17 to ban drones from flying near prisons after a push by SCDC officials, and the state has spent millions installing giant nets to prevent launched objects from coming in. Stirling said in March that 29 drones had flown over state prisons in 2017, according to Greenville News.

After somebody tried to smuggle contraband into South Carolina's notorious Lee Correctional Institution in 2014, the state had two guard towers constructed by inmates at a cost of $237,000. Another $2.2 million was expended on a camera system that, like the new drones, has heat-sensing and night vision abilities. The camera system is said to cover the entire prison. 

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Drones and thrown or launched packages are far from the only way that contraband is getting into South Carolina prisons. On April 25, 2018, federal prosecutors announced that they had arrested 14 prison employees in the state on charges related to bribery and smuggling.

When an uprising at Lee Correctional broke out on April 15 and left seven prisoners dead and more than 20 injured, the deadliest event at a US prison in a quarter of a century, Stirling placed the blame squarely on contraband. "This was all about territory, this was about contraband, this was about cell phones," he said.

Sputnik News spoke to an inmate at Lee Correctional following the fatal day. He refuted the claim that the violence was over contraband. Instead, he insisted, guards had set up a "gladiator match" between inmates — a practice he said is typical there — but that it escalated as prison guards "watched the bodies pile up" from behind a fence.

Friday, it was revealed that a similar practice was also employed by jail guards in Oklahoma, who were caught punishing inmates by handcuffing them in suspension as though they were being crucified. The ACLU accused the jail of also setting up a "gladiator school," which pitted African-American inmates against white supremacists.

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