Hawaii inmate data tracking system review costs near $1.4M, takes 4 years

After paying a company to recommend a replacement for its software system for tracking and managing information on inmates, the system has yet to be replaced

By Sophie Cocke
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

HONOLULU — After paying a company close to $1.4 million over four years to evaluate its data needs and recommend a replacement for its software system for tracking and managing information on inmates, Hawaii’s Department of Public Safety has yet to replace the system.

A Honolulu company called Pas de Chocolat was awarded the contract through the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii.

The contract became a point of concern earlier this year during Senate confirmation hearings for the two top officials at the Public Safety Department. DPS officials said there was nothing improper about the contract and described the work as invaluable to the agency.

However, the former director of a joint program between the department and UH under which the contract fell says he believes he and 15 other full- and part-time employees lost their jobs earlier this year, in part, because he began asking questions about it.

In a review of hundreds of pages of contract-related documents obtained through public records requests, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser found that while work on two of three phases of the contract was initially supposed to be completed by mid-2015, the contract for those phases was amended nine times and extended through 2019 as its costs continued to escalate.

Contracts issued through RCUH are exempt from state procurement laws, and a spokesman for the university said the contract didn’t violate any of RCUH’s internal procurement policies. But it’s raised concerns about the management of public funds and whether DPS is adequately addressing significant problems with its management of data, including calculations of when inmates are supposed to be released.

“The fact that nothing was produced at the end after spending $1.3(7) million, “it raises questions,” said Sen. Clarence Nishihara, chairman of the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee.

Nishihara said employees within the Public Safety Department contacted him with concerns about the contract, including its initial procurement. He considered convening an investigative committee during the 2019 legislative session that ended in May and subpoenaing witnesses but said time ran out. He said it’s something he may do next year.

“The game is not over yet,” said Nishihara.

Tracking offenders

A 2010 state of the Public Safety Department found the agency was “woefully under-utilizing” its existing Offendertrak system, which it described as a “state-of-the-art correctional information system.”

Offendertrak, developed by Moto­rola, can track a host of information about inmates, such as their charges, sentences, demographics, housing assignments, grievances, work furloughs and medical assessments. However, the audit found the department wasn’t fully using all the program’s functions and reports were often rife with errors, including listing incorrect release dates for inmates.

“The Offendertrak management system, if used accurately and to its capabilities, would enable prison managers and policymakers to make decisions with reliable information,” according to the audit.

However, in 2014 DPS decided it needed to replace the system because it believed it was being phased out by the vendor and wasn’t serving the agency’s more ambitious reporting and research needs.

The department decided that evaluating its data needs and coming up with a replacement for Offendertrak should fall under a new program between the Public Safety Department and University of Hawaii called the Research and Evaluation in Public Safety program.

The program, referred to as REPS, issued a request for proposals and interested parties were given three weeks to provide a bid proposal. Pas de Chocolat, a Honolulu-based strategic design company run by Cara and Kyle Oba, was the only bidder.

Employees of REPS say the contract was managed primarily by Cathy Ross, who at the time was deputy director of the Public Safety Department.

Pas de Chocolat’s bid proposal, in accordance with the request for proposals, indicated the first phase of work would be completed by March 15, 2015, and the second phase by June 30, 2015.

The contract requested a broad assessment of the department’s data infrastructure. The company also was required to evaluate the functionality of Offendertrak, research software programs that could serve as a replacement and provide the department with a final report.

During the second phase of the contract, the company was expected to conduct further research on the department’s database and reporting needs and submit a second report and identify solutions for replacing the corrections management system, according to contract documents.

If all went well, there would be a phase three to the project where a new software system would be installed and employees would undergo training.

However, phase three hasn’t happened, and the first two phases of the project were extended through 2019 after multiple contract modifications, extensions and revisions.

The initial phase one contract was for $246,000. In its bid, Pas de Chocolat estimated phase two work to cost $504,250. By February of this year, the company had been paid almost $1.3 million.

While Offendertrak is no longer sold by Moto­rola, the company continues to provide product support.

In September 2018, documents indicate the Department of Public Safety decided it was not ready to drop Offendertrak.

Pas de Chocolat’s final report, issued in January, concluded that a phase three contract — in which new software would be implemented — was not recommended.

“PSD has significant gaps to address before a larger-scale software implementation is advised,” according to the report.

The company would not elaborate on what those gaps were and the Public Safety Department redacted the report’s final recommendations.

While the software implementation phase as originally envisioned hasn’t proceeded, the Public Safety Department said it does have funding for a project that’s intended to pull together information from various departmental databases and systems into one unified system.

Internal disputes

Edward Suarez became the director of REPS in 2017. He said he began raising concerns about the contract, and the matter came to a head during a tense Oct. 23 meeting called by Ross, who at the time was still deputy director of the Public Safety Department. (She was confirmed by the Senate earlier this year to serve as first deputy of the Department of Health.)

According to Suarez, Ross said she was infuriated the contract was being questioned. He said she threatened to terminate the entire REPS program, which included 16 employees, if trust couldn’t be maintained.

Patrick Uchigakiuchi, who also worked for the REPS program and was the former director prior to Suarez, said he, too, recalls Ross threatening to cancel the program during the meeting. He said it was for reasons that were broader than the contract and that the department seemed concerned REPS employees were discovering problems within DPS that could look bad if made public.

Both Saurez and Uchigakiuchi said Ross asked each person in attendance to state whether they trusted her. Uchigakiuchi called it “bizarre.”

Ross, by email, said she was neither infuriated about the contract being questioned, nor did she threaten to end the REPS program. She said she did not ask those in attendance for any sort of loyalty pledge.

“These accusations are untrue and there is no factual basis for them,” she said.

Soon after the meeting, Paula Chun, the former REPS administrator who had overseen the Pas de Chocolat contract from its inception, filed a workplace grievance against Suarez. She told the Star-Advertiser that Saurez had been questioning her about the contract via email and found the tone very accusatory, as if she had done something wrong.

In December 2018, the Public Safety Department and UH, by mutual agreement, terminated the program and along with the Pas de Chocolat contract, which had recently been extended through the end of this month. The reasons were not clearly stated and officials with UH and the Public Safety Department declined to clarify other than to say the program had served its purpose.

Suarez said he was concerned about the contract, in part, because of the repeated contract extensions and cost increases. As director of the REPS program, it was something he needed to approve.

“Their reports are nice and glossy and pretty, but otherwise fairly inscrutable trying to understand what does this mean, what are the actions from this,” said Suarez. “If this was meant to help PSD get closer to having a better data system, it’s kind of mind-boggling that they could have spent the same amount of money to purchase that system five years ago instead of paying consultants several hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to tell them they need a new system.

“It’s mind-boggling. It’s government inefficiency at its worst.”

The Public Safety Department initially denied the Star-Advertiser’s records request for the reports, but recently on its website.

The reports can be difficult to discern. For instance, the conclusion in the first report states: “Data infrastructure can be a force multiplier. Existing staff can be more effective if technology supports changing requirements and brings data together to issue useful reports. Such a system would increase productivity and encourage the development of worker expertise.”

Suarez said he was also concerned about the Public Safety Department’s ongoing errors in holding inmates beyond their release dates. He said data suggested the rate of over-detention in past years may be as high as 10%. The Public Safety Department said earlier this year that figure is wrong, though officials acknowledged .

“The overall goal of the data infrastructure improvement project was to fix that and the numerous other serious problems with data and data management in Offendertrak and throughout PSD,” said Suarez. The issue “may be one of the most egregious errors,” he said, given the potential liability to the state, which settled a $1.2 million class-action lawsuit in 2004 to resolve hundreds of claims of inmates being over-detained and is dealing with ongoing lawsuits brought by individual inmates.

Suarez urged the Public Safety Department to look at new software to assist with calculating inmates’ release dates. In an email to Suarez on Oct. 25, Ross acknowledged that “time computation is a known issue that needs to be addressed” but said the department was already in the midst of working toward procuring a new corrections data system.

An evolving project

Kyle and Cara Oba, Ross and the Department of Public Safety defended the work done under the contract and suggested the purpose of the contract was being misconstrued.

“Major IT (information technology) modernization projects all include an assessment phase to understand the processes, people and policies tied to the IT system,” said Ross in written responses provided by the Public Safety Department. “This due diligence is critical to minimize purchasing or developing incompatible systems. PSD had never conducted an overall assessment of the various offender information systems and many systems were implemented with little or no involvement by PSD IT staff.”

Ross said extensive research was conducted under the contract along with strategic planning and risk management to prepare the department for data system modernization. She said this included the identification and assessment of 87 different data systems. Ross called the work “invaluable” to the department.

Cara Oba said the project was always meant to be more robust than just providing suggestions for a new software system.

“From the outside perspective, I think it gets seen as though implementing software is a quick fix and it can just be magically changed, or simply changed,” she said. “So the nature of our work is to understand how technology fits into the larger scope of the operation and changing software, again, it seems like a simple fix and a quick change, but it is not so straightforward.”

She said in the long term the work should save the department money.

“If they invest in a software solution that is incomplete in how it meets those expectations or cannot be customized or cannot be maintained or just has limits to its ability to extend the actual functionality that is required, then that is where you run into problems where software systems are underutilized or just not appropriate,” she said.

Kyle Oba said they had to work within the constraints of how REPS administered the contract, as well as within the complexity of the Public Safety Department.

“I think we did a good job,” he said. “I think there is a lot of confusion in this story about these projects and how they work.”

©2019 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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