Pa. models a streamlined approach to inmate management

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections found a better way to assign inmates among its 25 facilities


This article is taken from the November 2018 issue of eTechBeat, published by the Justice Technology Information Center, a component of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System, a program of the National Institute of Justice, (800) 248-2742.

By Becky Lewis 
TechBeat Magazine

Every administrator in a large corrections system at some time has looked at the stacks of paper and the labor hours it takes to do some ongoing task, and thought that there has to be a better way. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Corrections found a better way to assign inmates among its 25 facilities, and the effort it took to create the Inmate Assignment Decision Support System (IADSS) can serve as a model for state and large city corrections agencies looking to streamline similar daunting tasks.

On Aug. 30, 2018, “Streamlining Inmate Assignment in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections,” a webinar produced by the Justice Technology Information Center, explained how the PA DOC worked with Lehigh University to develop IADSS. The system has reduced a task that took 40 labor hours each week to an automated function that takes minutes, and in the process saved the department nearly $3 million in its first year of use.

Bill Nicklow, the director of the Office of Population Management at the time of IADSS implementation, says that the commonwealth generally has around 750 inmates each week that either are new to the system or need to be transferred, and staff perform needs and risk assessments on each inmate regarding rehabilitation, education, medical concerns and security issues.

“When the assessments were completed, we would start the assignment process by looking at beds and resources available for the first person on the list,” says Nicklow, now a major in the state’s Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence. “Staff made good decisions for the first names on the list, but by the time we got to inmate 300, the decisions weren’t as good because we had already used up a lot of the available resources. As a result, some inmates had to keep moving to different facilities because of unmet needs. He or she might get needed programming at one facility, but need to move to another for education.”

IADSS, in contrast, looks at all inmates and all available resources simultaneously and makes the best decision possible for every inmate. The system produces objective decisions, rather than the more subjective decisions produced during a manual review. Its implementation allowed PDOC to improve security, save resources and reduce inmate transportation costs. It also reduced waiting lists for necessary programs by an average of 54 days, meaning inmates may become eligible for parole sooner.

“All of that was a direct result of the work done by the system,” Nicklow says. “When I became director, we decided to take a systematic look at what we were doing and why we were doing it. We found out that we were doing some things just because we had always done them. We took a look at the whole process and broke it down, which was very educational for us and helped us cut out a lot of unnecessary tasks.”

Nicklow cautions any agency considering undertaking a similar operation that the development process is time-consuming and staff need to be vested in it, but the results can be tremendous and long-lasting.

“We’re seeing better decisions for inmates and an increase in productivity. The return on our investment over a 10-year period [$38 million] is pretty staggering,” he says.

Because of those results, Pennsylvania has discussed using the same development process to look at other complex, time-consuming tasks, such as transportation arrangements and overtime adjustments.

“I think that any state, regardless of size, can benefit from this type of process, and large city agencies could benefit as well. Even a smaller agency could benefit from taking a hard look at how things are done to eliminate unnecessary steps. Every system is different, with different parameters and rules, so unfortunately we can’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution to share, but we’d be glad to talk with anyone interested in following this approach,” Nicklow says.

For more information about the Inmate Assignment Decision Support System, contact Bill Nicklow at wnicklow@pa.gov. If you have a model program or innovative process that you would like to share with the corrections community, contact Joe Russo with the Justice Technology Information Center at jrusso@du.edu.

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