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Software Glitch Grants Early Release To Thousands Of US Prisoners

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Thousands of US prisoners released early from prison, after software glitch went unchecked for 13 years

A software bug is being blamed for releasing more than 3,200 prisoners early from jails in Washington State, US.

The fault, described as a “long-standing sentencing computation issue,” went unchecked for 13 years.

Software Bug

The software bug essentially miscalculated the sentence reduction that prisoners in Washington state would receive for good behaviour.

bended barsThe governor of the state described the problem as deeply disappointing and has promised an independent investigation into the Washington Department of Corrections, when it emerged that the problem had existed for thirteen years.

“These were serious errors with serious implications,” Govenor Jay Inslee said. “When I learned of this I ordered DOC to fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right.”

The problem stems from 2002, when a state Supreme Court ruling required the DOC to apply “good time” credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences. The DOC changed its sentence computation coding to comply with the ruling, but unfortunately it seems that the programming fix “contained an inaccurate sequencing that over-credited good time for those offenders with sentencing enhancements.”

The DOC said that as many as 3,200 offenders may have been released early over the course of 13 years. This represents 3 percent of all prisoner releases during that 13-year time period.

It estimated that prisoners on average saw a 49 day reduction in their prison sentences, because of the bug.

But it seems that at least one prisoner had his sentence cut by 600 days, almost two years.

To make matters worse it seems that the DOC actually discovered this problem back in 2012, and “began the process of a sequencing fix.” The department was only made aware of the problem when the family of one victim found out that the offender was getting an early release.

“However, for reasons that will be investigated, the sequencing fix was repeatedly delayed,” said the DOC. “A newly hired chief information officer at DOC recently became aware of the severity of the problem and alerted DOC leadership who then notified the governor.”

“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening,” Inslee said.

The governor immediately ordered the DOC to halt all releases of impacted offenders from prison until a hand calculation is done to ensure the offender is being released on the correct date. A software fix is expected to be in place by January 2016.

Early released prisoners are apparently being located to ensure they serve their full sentences.

“I have a lot of questions about how and why this happened, and I understand that members of the public will have those same questions,” Inslee said. “I expect the external investigation will bring the transparency and accountability we need to make sure this issue is resolved.”

Jail Tech

Technology and prisons have tended not to mix that well in the past.

Items such as smartphones and tablets are currently blocked or limited in all UK prisons, but prisoners have managed to get around preventative measures and use mobile phones to import firearms and drugs, co-ordinate escapes and arrange crimes.

In 2010 for example, convicted arsonist Brendan Rawsthorn, from Blackburn, used a smuggled mobile phone to boast on Facebook about getting drunk whilst in jail and playing computer games.

Last month the government introduced mobile signal blocking technologies in prisons as part of a £1.3 billion investment announced in the Autumn Statement in an effort to stem use of illicit mobile devices.

But finding illegal phones is a taxing problem for prison authorities,who in the past have used what is called the “Bloodhound detector”, which ‘sniffs out’ and locates mobile phones being used in restricted environment, such as prisons.

Last month Dallas-based Securus Technologies, a leading provider of phone services in jails and prisons in America was hacked, and over 70 million prison phone call records were compromised.

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