HomeTop StoriesDrones deliver medicine and food to French prison cells

Drones deliver medicine and food to French prison cells

In the dead of night, a drone hovers over a prison in the south of France and secretly leaves packages with the prisoners. But one package gets stuck in the railing outside a cell window, and guards confiscate three others.

Across France, prisoners have placed online orders for drones to illegally bring them everything from drugs and phones to their favorite fast food, often right outside their windows.

The failed delivery in southern France in early 2023 prompted authorities to take down a company called ‘Drone2France’, which had supplied goods to more than a dozen prisons in France and Belgium.

Prisoners had placed orders through the social media app Snapchat from late 2022 to December 2023, paying an average of 450 euros ($490) per package, with a maximum weight of 350 grams.

The service provider required a minimum order of four packages per delivery, and these often fell from the drone’s clutches into potato sacks.

Another setup called “Air Colis” (“Air Packet”), busted in western France in September, dropped contraband stuffed into socks on the end of a fishing line.

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And in another incident in southern France, authorities found packages containing more than 100 grams of cocaine and 700 grams of cannabis.

Hundreds of these types of deliveries are made every year, prison guards say.

“There is not a day that a drone does not fly overhead, whether on the mainland or in overseas territories,” said Dominique Gombert of prison guards union FO Justice.

Last year, more than a thousand drones were detected during flights over prisons, of which 400 were ‘blocked’, a source close to the matter said.

– Cannabis and kebab –

The prison authority did not respond to an AFP request for comment, but union representatives provided details of how the drone deliveries worked.

Wilfried Fonck, the secretary general of another prison guards union called Ufap-Unsa Justice, said the deliveries were becoming increasingly accurate.

“They almost reach a window,” said Fonck.

Most orders are for cannabis and mobile phones, but also kebabs, spicy merguez sausages, ceramic knives or religious books, he explained.

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Delivery services advertise directly on social media and can pick up the goods from an inmate’s friend or family member.

Most drones are the smaller ones sold online, therefore packages cannot be too heavy.

The drone operator is usually within a radius of two to five kilometers from the prison, with accomplices on the lookout.

The drone often flies with all lights off, guided by a light shined on the prisoner from his window.

The detainee then only has to stretch his arm through the bars to receive the goods.

Since there are fewer guards at night, there is less chance of being caught.

“At most, you can conduct surprise investigations the next morning,” says Fonck. But this was often complicated because those who stored the contraband were often the more discreet prisoners.

– ‘Tom and Jerry’ –

Security breaches by drones in France are not as serious as in Ecuador, where police defused an explosives-laden plane on the roof of a maximum-security prison in September.

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But French authorities are still taking the problem seriously and are ordering specialized equipment to tackle it in 2019 and 2021.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said in July last year that the government had spent more than 12 million euros ($13 million) on equipment to deter “95 percent of drone threats.”

This equipment includes detectors to catch drones over a prison, as well as electromagnetic scramblers to paralyze the plane and force them to make an emergency landing.

The measures had met with some success, with some smugglers forced to fall back on the older technique of simply throwing goods over the prison’s outer walls.

But Gombert said other drone delivery service operators were constantly innovating to outpace air defenses.

“Some hackers manage to bypass the protected areas,” he said.

Others are “testing higher altitudes” to avoid anti-drone turrets.

Another source close to the case said authorities often played catch-up.

“We’re playing a game of Tom and Jerry,” they said.

bur-al/ah/sjw/bc

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