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Drones and drug drops fueling fears of escalating violence inside Maritime prisons: union

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The latest high-value seizure of drugs at the Springhill Institute, a federal medium-security facility in Nova Scotia, included a modern technological twist.

In a release last week, Correctional Service Canada (CSC) said staff seized $475,000 in contraband on May 14.

Not mentioned in the release, the seizure that day involved two different methods of smuggling.

Following inquiries by CTV News, CSC confirms one method was contraband dropped by a drone, and the second was a person allegedly trying to smuggle drugs in to the nearly 50-year-old prison.

The drone was seen flying in the area in the early morning hours of May 14. A package was later found and turned over to RCMP by Correctional staff.

CSC now says, both smuggling attempts involved only the potent drug, crystal methamphetamine.

No charges have been laid in this latest seizure of drugs from the drone drop.

CTV has asked for more information on the visitor who is alleged to have smuggled drugs into the institution - including charges – but has not yet received further details.

CSC says the two drug seizures on May 14 were not related.

In-person smuggling or sending contraband through the mail have been long-standing methods of getting illegal items into prisons.

Now the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers is sounding the alarm about the introduction of drones for smuggling.

Rene Howe, the Atlantic Regional President for Union of Canadian Correctional Officers, told CTV News the nefarious use of drones is escalating rapidly in the Maritimes.

“What we’re seeing now is, there’s so much drone activity out there, we don’t really know how much is coming in, so we’ll find one drone today, and there may be five more that already landed, dropped their packages off,” Howe said.

Though these numbers may be hard to confirm because of the very nature of this activity, Nova Scotia RCMP tell CTV, between October 2022 and April 2024 they responded to “25 incidents involving offences under the Aeronautics Act, in the area of the Springhill Institute.”

According to Howe, with the increasing amounts of hard drugs being introduced into the institution, the violence inside is escalating.

But it goes further than that he says.

“People hear there’s a drone sighting at the Atlantic Institution or Springhill Institution, they automatically think its drugs, it’s not necessarily the case,” he added. “In those packages, there’s cell phones, there’s USB cards, there’s charging cables, there’s weapons.”

Drone technology has a number of applications. From large-area search and rescues, to industrial use, to monitoring for hotspots during wildfires, the work drones do is evolving.

They come in a number of sizes, with varying strengths and capabilities.

In Canada, drones between 250 g and 25 kg in weight must be registered. This includes custom-built drones and drones built from a kit or off-the shelf.

According to aviation expert David Curry, anybody with some technical aptitude can build a drone from scratch.

“I could probably in a day and half, build you a drone just from parts I can get at hobby stores,” Curry said. “I could make it so easy that you just open up your laptop, you just hit run, it’ll go up whatever altitude you want, it’ll go to this place, fly around, come back, land in a different place, and you’re not even holding the control.”

In terms of the weight they can carry, even Curry, a 38-year veteran of the aviation industry, and owner of MIR Aviation Services Inc. of Canmore, Alberta, said people would be surprised.

“I was surprised by how much they could carry,” he added.

That is consistent with worries held by the Correctional union membership who feel more potent elements could be introduced into the prison population.

“One of the things we’re really afraid of, is there’s going to be a gun being introduced in the institution if we don’t get control of this drone activity,” Howe added. “It’s coming to the point, it’s almost an epidemic, there’s drones coming in almost every day.”

Surprisingly, the discovery of $475,000 worth of crystal meth on May 14 was not a record seizure at the Springhill Institute.

On Aug. 11, 2022, Springhill staff found packages containing contraband on the perimeter of the prison worth an estimated institutional value of $750,000.

The items seized included 244 grams of hash, 485 grams of shatter (cannabis concentrate), 241 grams of crystal methamphetamine, 48 heroin pills, 352 acetyl-fentanyl pills, 146 grams of loose tobacco, two bales of tobacco, two cell phones, six SIM cards, and one charging block.

At the time, CSC did not share with the public details of how they thought the contraband wound up on the perimeter.

On Monday, Corrections admitted it was from a suspected drone drop.

As for charges in that incident, CTV News has been told by CSC further questions should be directed to the “responsible police of jurisdiction.”

CTV News asked RCMP, but have yet to hear back.

As a result of increased drone activities around their institutions, CSC says it’s working with local police and the RCMP, to raise awareness in the communities surrounding their facilities.

In an email, CSC said there are institutions that appear to experience more drone incidents than others, but sharing specific information about suspected drone drops could create security vulnerabilities for at their institutions.

They also say they are adopting new technologies including procuring drone detection technology.

CTV News has asked why it is taking so long to put this in place, but CSC has yet to respond.

Springhill Institution is about 30 km from Amherst, N.S. and has a capacity of 636 inmates.

It is one of four federal institutions in the Maritimes, three for men and one for women. There is also the Shepody Healing Centre, which is a multi-level security facility in Dorchester, N.B. It is one of five regional treatment centres operated by the CSC.

Nova Scotia Correctional Services says they have recovered drones on the grounds of provincial facilities that have contained contraband, but would not elaborate.

A spokesperson said, there are protocols in place to intercept and prevent drones from entering Correctional Services properties.

For security reasons; however, they say they cannot discuss those protocols.

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