Arizona prisoners eligible for release are still behind bars thanks to a software bug

The inmate management software is supposed to calculate release dates. But it doesn't know how to interpret new sentencing laws.

Jailer walking through the prison aisle, entering the safe zone. Prison officer in  blue shirt with ...

In a piece of news that's as disturbing as it is unsurprising, it's been reported that hundreds of inmates in Arizona prisons have remained behind bars past their eligible release because the software that determines release dates is broken.

That news comes from KJCC, which says that sources inside the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) have been aware of the problem since 2019 when new sentencing laws were enacted allowing eligible inmates to be released earlier if they completed certain programming.

Repeated warnings — The software the agency uses to this day is still not able to factor the new law into release date calculations, despite warnings from insiders. Prison officials have instead been doing calculations by hand, but that work has been slow and numerous inmates could have been released by now had the software worked.

The DOC admitted in a statement to KJCC that officials are making the calculations of new release dates manually, but said no inmate is being held past their eligibility. If they don't actually know when inmates should be released, then sure, as far as officials know maybe they aren't holding inmates longer than they should. The DOC says it hopes to have a fix for the issue addressed in a forthcoming software update.

Bad software is bad — In light of other recent software failures, this whole situation really isn't surprising. Take the Citibank fiasco in which the bank sent nearly $1 billion to hedge funds by mistake because of confusing buttons in the company's backend software. Or delays in Americans receiving unemployment at the beginning of the pandemic because state agencies were using software powered by the discontinued COBOL programming language. We're lucky that worse things haven't happened as a consequence of bad software that's supposed to keep the world moving. Or perhaps they have, and they simply haven't come to light yet.

According to the KJCC story, the DOC spent $24 million procuring the current prison management software, which replaced a previous system that had been in operation for more than 30 years. But the new software, called ACIS, was rushed out too soon — it has experienced more than 14,000 bugs since being implemented in November 2019. Sure, bugs are normal, but not that many of them in such a short period of time. Other programs that the DOC uses have apparently been failing in similar ways, like modules that track inmate healthcare and financial accounts.

It seems that Arizona's DOC has followed a model of buying different modules from different software providers, and a lot of them aren't working too well thanks to sheer incompetence or lack of will. Or maybe both — prisons are a lucrative business, after all.