By Ames Alexander

Flying drones near prisons and jails in North Carolina is now a crime.

Across the nation, contraband smugglers have increasingly turned to drones as a tool for sneaking drugs, cellphones and weapons to inmates.

The new N.C. law, signed by Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday, prohibits anyone but law enforcement officials from flying drones within 250 feet above or 500 feet around prisons and jails. Those who use drones to deliver weapons or other contraband can be charged with felonies, while others who simply fly drones near prisons can be charged with misdemeanors.

Prison leaders in a number of states are working to address the threat posed by the increasingly inexpensive technology.

North Carolina officials say they've had two cases of drones crashing within prison fences, both in 2015. The drones were recovered by prison staff members before the contraband they were carrying made its way into the prison.

In one of those cases -- which occurred at a central North Carolina prison that state officials declined to name -- the line that tethered the contraband to the drone got tangled in a piece of heating and cooling equipment.

The aircraft crashed in a part of the prison grounds that's off-limits to inmates, a prison spokesman said. When staff members opened the oblong package, they discovered a cellphone, a charger, tobacco, rolling papers and a lighter.

In about a half-dozen other cases over the past two years, drones have been spotted flying over or near N.C. prisons, a prison spokesman said.

In South Carolina, prison leaders say they know of five cases in which drones have dropped contraband.

While the number of cases is not yet large, the potential threat is, experts and lawmakers say.

"We don't want a drone dropping a gun into the yard of a prison," N.C. Rep. Allen McNeill, a Randolph County Republican who helped sponsor the bill, said earlier in the year. "It could cause a death or an injury to a prisoner or a guard."

(c)2017 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)