LEXINGTON — 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.
“This system only works if state purchasing officers are using the technology to ensure the data works,” Murphey said.
“The opportunity for the vendor to aggressively price in certain circumstances is there. We've put a lot of attention on reform in that area and ensuring the purchasing officers who work with state vendors are aggressively renegotiating on these contracts.”
Leonard Hymel, president of Sysco's Oklahoma facility, said that the price differences could simply be a case of market fluctuation. If one facility orders a crate of apples at the beginning of the week and another orders the same crate at the end, the prices may vary.
“Our prices change,” Hymel said. “We purchase weekly, sometimes multiple times a week depending on the product, and that can be different due to marketing conditions.”
Charley Wilson, a spokesman for Sysco's corporate offices in Houston, added that perishable items such as poultry and produce can vary in price during specific times of the year because of demand and market conditions.
Sysco signed a contract with the state of Oklahoma in October 2009 to provide food for 181 state agencies until August 2015.
Murphey acknowledged that the price variation could be explained easily, but emphasized the need to confirm that no wrongdoing is taking place.
“If those concerns are valid, we ask if they are real anomalies or systemwide,” Murphey said. “If they're systemwide it's a big, big deal.”
Murphey said the next step is to meet with officials in the Central Purchasing Division, the department within Oklahoma Management and Enterprise Services that provides oversight on the state's procurement activities, to get a better understanding of how they monitor such contracts.
According to John Estus, spokesman for Oklahoma Management and Enterprise Services, those contracts are reviewed quarterly, and it is up to the individual agencies to bring any concerns about them to the attention of his office.
He said that he has received no complaints from the Corrections Department regarding the state's food vendor contract with Sysco.
It is possible for individual agencies to request to make purchases outside of state contracts if they feel a better deal can be made and money saved.
Murphey said he believes that regardless of how central purchasing oversees the contracts, if the program were to be implemented on a statewide level it may offer agencies a chance to save additional funds by monitoring purchases at the ground level.