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Technology savvy Oklahoma inmates develop monitoring program that may save state money

A small group of inmates at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington, Oklahoma, created a data collection program to monitor prisoners and purchase orders, and some lawmakers say it may have the potential to save Oklahoma millions of dollars.
by Graham Lee Brewer Modified: October 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm •  Published: October 28, 2013

Three computer savvy inmates serving time at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center have created a data collection program that may save the state millions of dollars, say three state representatives.

The program initially was developed to monitor inmates during chow time. By entering each inmate in a computer system as they receive their food, corrections employees hoped to catch prisoners who were getting back in line and receiving a second meal.

Oklahoma Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said the program developed and maintained by inmates has been in place at Joseph Harp in Lexington for close to two years.

Massie said that the program has the potential to be implemented in other state-run correctional facilities.

Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, Rep. Scott Martin, R-Norman, and Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, toured the medium-security facility Thursday to meet with corrections officials and the inmates themselves.

While neither Massie or the lawmakers would give the names of the inmates who developed and currently are working on the program, both Martin and Cleveland said they believe one is serving time on a murder charge and at least one of the remaining two is incarcerated for a sex-related crime.

The idea of convicted criminals developing such a program raises possible concerns that inmates could find ways to take advantage of the system.

“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 said.

Murphy said that to ensure the inmates aren't doing so, safeguards such as routine checks would have to be established.

Martin agreed but adds that allowing prisoners to work on the program can save the state the money it would cost to hire a software developer.

“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,” Martin said. “Where it makes sense is that we should use that to our advantage.”

As part of the data collection, the inmates also gathered information on the quantities and pricing of food their facility receives from the state's food vendor, the Houston-based company, Sysco. They noticed that the same food items being delivered to two different facilities were being bought at different prices, which raised a red flag for the lawmakers.

“In some cases an exact same item might arrive at Lexington (Assessment and Reception Center) and Harp at the same warehouse, and one has a different price than the other,” Murphey said.

Murphey, who chairs the House Government Modernization Committee, said that many correctional facilities still are using pen and paper to track pricing and intake, and if the technology is there it is important that it be used.

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by Graham Lee Brewer
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Graham Lee Brewer began his career as a journalist covering Oklahoma's vibrant music scene in 2006. After working as a public radio reporter for KGOU and then Oklahoma Watch, where he covered areas such as immigration and drug addiction, he went...
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