It was after 1 a.m. when a drone swept through the high branches and glided past the razor wire. An officer spotted the machine as it descended into the prison yard and drifted behind a dorm where convicts slept.
The tiny aircraft reversed course and zipped back toward the forest. As security staff scrambled, flashlight beams glinted off trees and two people sprinted through the woods. The drone became snagged in tall pines.
On its belly rode a payload — six smartphones sheathed in black electrical tape.
The ill-fated drone drop in May at Columbia Correctional Institution near Lake City spawned a criminal investigation and underscored a growing problem in the Florida prison system — a new wave of contraband.
Cellphones along with the synthetic marijuana, known as spice or K2, present new challenges for prison officials who already struggle to deal with makeshift weapons, drugs, prison gangs and corrupt staff.
People who have done time attest to the prison adage that anything you want, it's there.
The numbers bear them out.
Between 2017 and 2018, authorities confiscated more than 9,000 cellphones in Florida prisons — roughly one for every nine inmates in the state.
During the same period, officials took in about 79 pounds of synthetic marijuana. Spice might have contributed to a 20 percent rise in inmate deaths from 2016 to 2017, though exact totals are hard to peg because it is difficult to detect in blood and bodily tissues.
"The influx of contraband, specifically synthetic and homemade drugs, is a contributing factor to the increase in inmate violence and in-custody deaths," said Patrick Manderfield, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections. "Synthetic drugs are relatively cheap, and inmates see it as a profitable form of contraband."
• • •
Smugglers find a host of pathways into prison, some high tech and some tried and true.
Take what happened in February at Graceville Work Camp, in the Panhandle.
A guard on perimeter patrol after 1 a.m. spotted someone jogging away from the prison, toward a group of trees. Inspecting the area, the officer trained his flashlight on some black mesh bags caught in razor wire.
Inside were 11 cellphones and chargers, 29 cigarette packs, and clothing and toiletry items.
The incident was one of several "throw-overs" discovered a few weeks apart at three different prisons. In some cases, smugglers have stuffed contraband inside a football for a kind of Hail Mary pass.
In response, the Department of Corrections canceled the weekend visitation at the three prisons — a tactic it is turning to more often to expand its searches. Entire institutions go on lockdown so staff can conduct inspections, using interdiction teams that include dogs for detecting contraband in visitor belongings.
These moves have succeeded in turning up contraband and netting arrests, but critics say they're unfair to inmate families.
Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines
Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
"What you're doing is punishing visitors because the Department of Corrections can't adequately staff its prisons," said John Ulm, a longtime law enforcement officer who worked in the Department of Corrections' Inspector General's Office. "You take the most basic lifeline away from this person. All you're doing is furthering the damage."
And still, contraband gets through.
In July, Vanda McElveen was arrested during a visit to Franklin Correctional Institution after authorities said they discovered methamphetamine and spice on her.
Taken to a local jail, she was strip-searched. But later, a fellow inmate helped her remove a package of spice from a body cavity, according to an arrest report. The drugs found their way to the jail kitchen and to six male inmates, all of whom became sick.
"Our biggest hurdle to combatting contraband is resources," Manderfield said. "Recruitment and retention of officers remains a top priority for us. More officers would allow for more searches, as well as increased supervision during visitation."
• • •
Most contraband is smuggled through organized gang activity, said Aubrey Land, a former state prison inspector general who now works as a corrections consultant. He calls it a "multi-million-dollar black market system," which the Department of Corrections is ill-equipped to tackle.
The department hurt its own cause, Land said, when it transferred inspectors who had been directly involved in hunting illegal goods to the watchdog Inspector General's Office.
"The problem is they basically did away with arrest powers for contraband interdiction teams," he said.
Now, Land advocates for the creation of a new organized crime unit to investigate the wide range of racketeering activity inside the state's prisons.
The department might get more bang for its buck by targeting its own staff, said Kyle Williford, who spent about three years locked up for nonviolent crimes.
Most of the contraband Williford saw came from prison employees, he said. With salaries for new officers starting at just $33,500 a year, it's no wonder, he said, that some might take money to supplement their income.
"You have the salary of a Walmart employee, but you're watching child molesters, gangbangers and murderers," Williford said. "They're underpaid and overworked. It's a horrible environment to live in."
He added, "Imagine picking up a touch-screen phone at Walmart for $20 and selling it for $400."
Prisoners use smuggled cellphones to stay in touch with relatives without having to pay for the pricey prison-controlled phone system. But corrections officials say the phones also are used to commit crimes such as drug dealing, murder and assault on inmates and corrections staff, and escape.
Search YouTube and it's not hard to find videos, apparently recorded on smuggled cellphones, showing inmates in their state-issued blue scrubs passed out and vomiting.
In 2018, at least 19 corrections officers and staff have been accused of misconduct related to contraband.
Take the case of Benjamin Hankerson, a corrections officer at Florida State Prison near Starke when he was arrested in August after cashing a $100 Western Union money transfer from an inmate's girlfriend and using it to pay a cellphone bill, investigators said.
In exchange, according to an arrest report, Hankerson agreed to smuggle four packs of cigarettes into the prison.
• • •
Corrections authorities made a dent in the smuggling problem in the case of the ill-fated drone drop at the Columbia prison.
After recovering the machine from the trees, they traced it through the serial number to a California company and a customer from Oregon named Joshua Tyler Munn.
Munn, 31, served about nine years during two stints in Florida prisons for theft-related convictions in Alachua County. After his release in 2015, Munn tried to visit Daniel Velario, a Columbia inmate assigned to the dorm where officers spotted the drone.
Velario's sole approved visitor, according to Department of Corrections records, was Kara Rachel Braun. She is Munn's girlfriend, according to Facebook, where the pair appear in pictures together.
In the days before the drone flight, Velario made several calls to Munn's cell number via an inmate phone system, investigators found. That night, a signal from Munn's phone bounced off a cell tower behind the prison.
Munn's fingerprints also were found on the drone.
He was arrested Aug. 31.
Contact Dan Sullivan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.