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In this file photo from 2015, contraband seized from inmates — shivs, a slingshot and a razor blade taped to a toothbrush — is displayed to show Department of Correctional Services trainees how creative prisoners can be.

A Nebraska inmate working on prison grounds near the Lincoln Correctional Center in mid-February made a rare discovery, a high-tech hint of what may be in store for staffers tasked with trying to keep contraband out of prisoners' hands.

The inmate on work detail came across a crashed drone with bags of marijuana and tobacco attached, according to a search warrant tied to the Nebraska State Patrol investigation to track down the culprit.

While drone air-drops haven't taken off here yet, according to prisons spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith, they're definitely on the radar for Christopher Connelly, the agency intelligence administrator at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

It's likely just a matter of time, given that drones have gotten more affordable, and that wherever there's a prison there are smugglers trying to sneak contraband — drugs, weapons, cellphones, anything — inside.

"That's pretty much their job description: Find new ways to get around the rules," Connelly said.

He said the prisons' Centralized Intelligence Unit, which formed last year, keeps an eye on what's going on elsewhere, and keeps up with technology, to try to get in front of the game.

And it's been happening elsewhere.

Last year, the Justice Department reported seeing an increasing number of attempts to use drones to smuggle contraband into federal prisons over the past five years.

"Really, there's so many ways that contraband can come in, whether it comes in through the front entrance or a laundry cart or delivery truck," Smith said of the broader issue at play.

"Or dropped in by a drone," Connelly added.

In Europe, he said, smugglers have been known to use carrier pigeons.

Connelly said it comes down to this: In prison, anything that the state doesn't provide, inmates want. Cellphones, ink pens, jewelry, drugs, even Nike shoes. In part, just to show they can get it.

"I call it job security," Connelly said.

He's seen people hollow out books, fill them with dope and donate them; manufacture pallets with tobacco hidden inside; and sneak in liquid K2 by spraying it onto prison mail.

"They're creative," he said.

The "submarket economy" can lead to violence, he said. For instance, if an inmate gets to a point he can't pay.

But it can lead to other problems, too.

Like the deadly disturbance March 2, 2017, at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution after staff discovered and confiscated a footlocker that held 150 pounds of homemade alcohol.

And the June 2 death of Daelan Lamere, a 22-year-old inmate, who had methamphetamine and Ecstasy in his system.

Cellphones, which are banned in prisons, lead to a slew of safety issues. Connelly said inmates can use them to track down staff home addresses or transact business, "whatever that business might be, from inside."

Smith said Prisons Director Scott Frakes has put a renewed focus on locating and recovering any contraband, including cellphones, which have been a growing problem.

Last year, prison staff seized 166 cellphones in the state's 10 prison facilities, 71 of them at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, according to a Corrections Department report.

In 2016, they found 64. A year before that, 79.

Smith said last June they started using new technology, Cellsense, to help them find cellphones that have made their way inside.

Connelly said they also have a dog specially trained to find them.

But, while the numbers of cellphones discovered within prison walls is going up, drugs and alcohol still top the list of contraband found in the state's prisons. A drug-testing program shows some inmates are finding ways to get their hands on drugs and alcohol.

Amphetamines, alcohol, cocaine and marijuana were detected in the systems of inmates across the penal system in nearly 5 percent of cases in 2016, according to the latest available data.

In 2016, some 126 inmates tested positive for marijuana at the State Penitentiary.

Positive drug tests are most common at the Diagnostic Evaluation Center and the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, where some inmates are coming right off the streets, according to the department.

Last year, corrections officers also seized 285 weapons at the state's prisons, including 130 at the State Penitentiary. That's up from 73 the year before, according to data provided by the department.

Connelly said the thing is, there's just so many ways people can try to smuggle things in.

It means staff must be hypervigilant, Connelly said, "and really look at every single thing that goes in and goes out."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter Riley Johnson contributed to this report.



Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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