Oklahoma legislators have estimated the state could save upwards of $20 million annually if a computer software program developed by two prisoners at the medium-security Joseph Harp Correctional Center is expanded statewide.
Authorities said the facility began using the program to track prisoners’ meals in the fall of 2011, according to Jerry Massie, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections (DOC). The creators of the software – whom officials refused to name other than saying one is a convicted murderer and the other a sex offender – have already expanded it to include a wide range of money-saving monitoring.
“It’s a pretty neat program. It’s all done by the direction of the supervisor (William Weldon), one of these guys who’s kind of, what do you call it, thinking outside the box,” said state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, which has jurisdiction over the state’s prisons. “They built a system that could save the state millions of dollars. I want to get the state using this thing.”
Cleveland said the software is based on bar-coding technology and was initially used to track prisoners through food lines to ensure they don’t eat twice. The program was later expanded to track how popular meals are, when tools are checked out and returned at prison work assignments, and even to track incoming shipments of food and supplies and their unit costs.
Monitoring the popularity of meals allows the DOC to better predict and manage food purchases, more economically buying only what the prison will need, officials said. The program was also responsible for alerting authorities that Sysco, which supplies food to the state prison system, was charging different prices for the same food items sent to two different prisons, according to the Daily Oklahoman.
“It does kind of expose the waste at all the other facilities. It was just one of those genuine, lightning-strikes things,” said state Rep. Jason Murphey. “When you deal with the way state government spends money, billions of dollars go through,” he added. “You’re always dependent upon those at the ground level to report what’s going on. Here in this facility, you had those employees at the ground level taking their jobs very seriously.”
Rep. Cleveland said the software can also help the state avert potential legal action by prisoners who sue claiming they have been denied special meals, whether for medical or religious reasons. He said when a prisoner’s bar code is scanned, an alert lets prison officials know whether to serve a Halal or Kosher meal, or if the prisoner is diabetic.
Rep. Murphey noted, however, that caution is needed when using a computer program written by prisoners.
“If they build on what they’ve done here, they actually have to script it out,” he said. “If you have inmates writing code, there has to be a continual auditing process. Food in prison is a commodity. It’s currency.”
“It would be so easy for inmates who are savvy to build backdoors, even if the code is audited after it is deployed, if it is inmate-maintained,” Murphey told the Oklahoman.
One aspect of the program that has not been fully addressed is the legality of the state’s use of a computer program created by prisoners.
“We utilize our prisoners for physical labor jobs, and it just so happens some of our prisoners have a skill set other than physical labor.... Where it makes sense is that we should use that to our advantage,” asserted state Rep. Scott Martin.
A lawsuit filed by a prisoner in federal court in New Hampshire alleged that two prisoners created a software program that prison officials “stole” from them in violation of copyright infringement laws. The district court dismissed the suit, which also raised retaliation and state law claims, in August 2013. See: Roy v. Wrenn, U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:12-cv-00303-JD.
Which indicates that even when prisoners write software programs that save the state millions of dollars, they are unlikely to receive any financial benefits themselves.
Additional sources: Daily Oklahoman, www.newsok.com, www.washingtonpost.com, www.businessinsider.com
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Related legal case
Roy v. Wrenn
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (D. NH), Case No. 1:12-cv-00303-JD|