A Software Flaw in Arizona Is Keeping People Behind Bars

Thousands of incarcerated people in Arizona have been kept behind bars by a software glitch, according to a report by KJZZ broadcast Monday. Anonymous whistleblowers from the Arizona Department of Corrections whistleblowers leaked details about the situation to the Phoenix NPR member station.

Arizona has the fifth highest imprisonment rate in the country, and its incarcerated people are mostly nonviolent drug offenders. In 2019, the state Legislature passed a law aiming to change that by providing a way for nonviolent criminals to secure early release. For every seven days spent in a GED or substance abuse treatment program, an incarcerated person can shave three days off a sentence. In 2019, the Arizona Mirror estimated that under the law, nearly 7,000 incarcerated people could become eligible for early release, allowing them to shorten the length of their sentence by up to 70 percent. But so far, that hasn’t happened—and software may be to blame.

The Arizona Correctional Information System manages much of the lives of people who are incarcerated. But this software is known to be full of glitches—with “more than 14,000 bugs” documented in its years of use, according to KJZZ’s sources.

The system has messed up tracking inmate health care, financial accounts, and religious affiliation. A man who was formerly in the Arizona prison system has tweeted about his experience with this: “I went to get religious accommodation for something and they stated my preference did not match my religious request.” He wrote, “Even though I had paper proving my preference. They went with the computer.”

Now whistleblowers within the Arizona Department of Corrections have told KJZZ that the new rules around earning early release haven’t been integrated into the tracking software. As a result, ACIS has failed to identify which inmates are eligible for the early release program and calculate their new release date.

In October, employees within the corrections department sent an internal change request to higher ups, detailing the need to adjust the ACIS software so it functioned in accordance with the law. Regarding the new early release date system, the report states: “Currently this calculation is not in ACIS at all. …” ACIS’s parent company wrote in an email to Gizmodo that these “change requests” are how new laws are usually integrated into computer systems. It maintained that its software doesn’t have a “bug” but just hadn’t been adjusted properly. The company didn’t address the miscalculations in the other aspects of the system or acknowledge that the change request was never implemented.

Instead of creating the new calculation or using a new system, department leaders reportedly asked everyone to keep the issue quiet.  “We were told ‘We’re too deep into it—too much money had been spent—we can’t go back now,’ ” the whistleblowers reported. $24 million had been spent implementing ACIS software. A whistleblower estimated that fixing the glitch responsible for miscalculating early release dates and eligibility would take more than 2,000 expensive hours of reprogramming.

But Darrell Hill, policy director of the Arizona ACLU, told Slate that Arizona paid the Department of Corrections millions of dollars to implement the ACIS software program. “So, it rings hollow that they needed more money to fix this program,” he said. Furthermore, according to a study reported by the Arizona Capitol Times on Tuesday, effective early release programs could save Arizona more than $1.4 billion over the next 10 years.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections confirmed to KJZZ that the ACIS system “does not currently calculate release dates in accordance with the parameters established by ” the new law. But the spokesperson says the department has the situation under control by manually tracking inmate program eligibility completion and release dates earned.

“The idea that prison employees have been manually counting early release dates (in what, a spreadsheet?) for nearly 2 years is insane,” Gizmodo journalist Dell Cameron tweeted in response to this.

The department said that no one’s early release has been delayed and that they’ve manually identified 733 eligible people who weren’t currently enrolled in the early release program. According to the 2019 law’s FAQ sheet, only the computer system can determine someone’s eligibility for the program. But whistleblowers told KJZZ that there are probably thousands of eligible incarcerated people who have been missed.

“It’s been a comedy of errors at the Department of Corrections and it has been for a number of years,” Hill said, adding that KJZZ’s report “demonstrates the need for greater transparency, accountability and oversight into what the administration is doing.”

In response to the KJZZ article, the House Appropriations Committee in Arizona met on Tuesday and passed a bill to create an oversight committee for the Arizona Department of Corrections. “There are folks sitting in DOC right now that should be out because they have met their time or don’t have the resources—or they’re on an antiquated system—to get these folks out of prison,” Rep. Walt Blackman, a Republican, said as he rallied support for the bill.

The state’s oversight committee is a first step, but the underlying, technological problem is a national one. “I imagine this is an incredibly common pattern in government software—a bill gets passed, but updating the software to make new calculations based on that bill is delayed for months if not years,” data scientist Simon Willison tweeted.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.