Contraband smugglers use potato guns after prisons spend millions on netting

After the S.C. Department of Corrections spent more than $8.5 million dollars installing golf course-like netting around higher-security prisons, criminals looking to smuggle contraband into state correctional institutions found a unique way to get over them.

The department’s Police Services investigators suspect contraband hustlers have used potato guns to launch banned items such as drugs, tobacco and cell phones over the 50-foot-tall netting, spokesman Dexter Lee confirmed.

Potato guns use pressurized air or flammable gas to launch potatoes or spud-like projectiles over long distances. They can be homemade, with how-to guides splattered across the internet.

Though there have been no “recent documented incidents involving potato guns,” police services investigators still believe they are being used to circumvent the new netting, which was put up around the following correctional institutions: Broad River, Evans, Ridgeland, Tyger River, Perry, Lieber, Lee and McCormick.

Netting is being installed at Kershaw Correctional and will soon be put up around Turbeville and Trenton correctional institutions, Lee said. The total bill for the netting will be about $8.75 million.

The Department of Corrections began installing netting designed to stop contraband “throw-overs” in January 2018 to combat the growing issue inside of South Carolina’s prisons, Lee said.

The netting has faced some criticism. In August, Columbia TV station WIS challenged a 14-year-old to throw a football over a similar golf-course netting. The teen reportedly tossed the ball over on the first try.

Though the teen succeeded in tossing the ball over the netting, Lee said where it landed would not be accessible to inmates.

“There have been no reported throw-overs at the institutions with netting,” he added.

While they may be conquerable on their own, the nets are designed to work in concert with 20 units built to detect drones, infrared cameras and airport security-like scanners as part of a multilayer approach the department has taken since 2018, Lee said.

“The netting was never meant to be the total solution,” Lee said.

Despite the creative new ways of sneaking in contraband, such as with potato guns, the department believes the new net and technology system have been a success. From July 2017 to June 2018, the amount of contraband cellphones and phone accessories shrank by about 2,500, Lee said.