The Pennsylvania State Police have reported that a drone was heard in the vicinity of the Warren County Prison by a couple of people around the time of the escape of Michael Burham. Although the drone’s presence or role in the escape has not been confirmed by law enforcement, it is entirely plausible that a drone could be used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to aid in the escape of a prisoner from a jail or correctional facility.
A drone could be used pre-escape to determine the pattern of life of security functions and personnel, search for vulnerabilities in the physical security infrastructure, or other information that may aid in the prisoner’s escape. During an escape, a drone could provide real-time intelligence of security personnel’s locations and response actions. Information could be relayed in real-time to the escapee via a contraband cellular telephone.
Burham managed to escape from the Warren County Prison by utilizing exercise equipment to reach the roof. From there, he used a rope crafted from jail bedding to descend to the ground and escape. Burham is a suspect in a homicide and had been held in custody on charges including kidnapping and burglary, with bail set at $1 million.
“I’m not a big believer in coincidences,” said Lt. Col. George Bivens of the Pennsylvania State Police. “There could be a perfectly innocent and reasonable explanation. … If there’s not an innocent explanation, perhaps that assists us in finding him and also finding anyone providing aid.”
One media outlet reported that a family member of a nearby resident was flying a drone inspecting gutters around 8 p.m. the evening of the prison escape. According to the criminal complaint against Burham, the escape occurred around 11:26 p.m. on July 6th. The resident reported on Wednesday that he had not yet talked to law enforcement about the drone flights the night of the escape.
Based on currently available information, it is unknown whether the roof flights reported by a nearby resident around 8 p.m. and the multiple reports of hearing a drone around the time of the escape are related.
According to prosecutors in Chautauqua County, New York, Burham is the main suspect in the murder of Kala Hodgkin, aged 34, on May 11, and an arson incident in Jamestown, New York. Additionally, he is charged with the abduction of an elderly couple in Pennsylvania while attempting to evade capture before being apprehended in South Carolina. Local authorities in Warren have classified him as “highly dangerous.”
Before being apprehended in South Carolina in May, Burham was the target of a days-long manhunt by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its state and local law enforcement partners. A federal arrest warrant was issued by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York for the charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. He was also wanted for state warrants issued in New York and Pennsylvania.
Over 200 state, federal, and local law enforcement officers are currently engaged in an extensive manhunt, as confirmed by state police. The reward fund for information leading to Burham’s capture has now reached $19,500. Authorities have expressed their belief that Burham remains in the vicinity, even after five days since his escape, based on the discovery of campsites and small stockpiles believed to be linked to him. Investigators have further stated their suspicion that he is receiving assistance from an accomplice, and they are determined to prosecute anyone found aiding him.
Drones for ISR and Contraband Drops
The use of a drone for ISR to aid in the planning and execution of an escape from a correctional facility is another use case that highlights the need for the expansion of technology that can be used to provide airspace awareness and protection for law enforcement and public safety.
Daily, correctional facilities encounter significant challenges posed by contraband items dropped from drones, including illegal weapons, drugs, and cell phones. Leaders and staff within prisons and jails require advanced and refined methods to effectively detect, prevent, and confiscate contraband before it infiltrates the facility’s population.
Last month, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction announced that three individuals now face 116 criminal counts. The charges stem from their alleged involvement in utilizing drones to transport cell phones, drugs, and various prohibited items into five state prisons.
In another recent announcement, Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown revealed that fifteen individuals had been indicted in connection with three separate prison contraband conspiracies involving inmates at Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, Maryland. The investigation uncovered a highly sophisticated criminal network that utilized drones, a correctional officer, and a hospital, enabling the distribution of dangerous substances, including fentanyl, and various contraband items such as cell phones, tools, and other illegal materials.
Correctional Facilities Have Limited Authorities
Currently, public safety and law enforcement personnel are limited in the technologies that can be used to provide airspace awareness and protection (Counter-UAS or Counter-Drone) capabilities to mass gatherings, correctional facilities, or other essential assets or critical infrastructure within their jurisdictions.
Multiple bills currently being considered during the 118th Congress could expand the use of Counter-UAS technologies to state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) law enforcement and owners and operators of critical infrastructure.
For example, the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have released their versions of the “Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act of 2023.” Both versions of the bill have similar language that will allow for SLTT and owners and operators of critical infrastructure to use a full range of technology, including radio frequency (RF) detection equipment to “detect, identify, monitor, or track an unmanned aircraft system or unmanned aircraft within the areas of responsibility of responsibility or jurisdiction of the authorized personnel.”
See the U.S. Senate version of the Counter-UAS bill here.
The incremental step of allowing SLTT and critical infrastructure owners and operators to use a full range of RF detection equipment that would otherwise violate laws such as the Wiretap Act of the Pen/Trap Statue would provide these entities with the ability to mitigate many of the threats that drones pose to correctional facilities, to include intercepting contraband drops, arresting drone pilots, and identifying pre-escape drone surveillance or real-time overwatch during an escape.
See the U.S. House version of the Counter-UAS bill here.
Post Image- Wanted Poster for Michael Charles Burham (Image Credit: Pennsylvania State Police)