IDOC's Tech Problem 

A former employee's take on the flawed system

Editor's note: Michael Chacon has worked in IT and business management for more than 25 years. He was a business analyst for three years at the Idaho Department of Correction until his position was eliminated.

Now that U.S. District Judge David O. Carter has ruled the Idaho Department of Correction misled the court and is responsible for the destruction and improper manipulation of offender medical records, it may be time to take a closer look at the underlying causes of these misdeeds. A recurring theme permeated the hearings in July: IDOC information systems do not provide what is necessary to professionally administer the second largest agency in the state of Idaho.

The hearing testimony centered on the tampering of "primary logs" and "sex offender assessment process" documents. Despite being essential to offender care they are external Microsoft Word and Excel documents, rather than part of the offender management application. IDOC is essentially run on isolated documents, rather than an integrated offender management system. IDOC may as well run the agency on 3-inch by 5-inch index cards. Well, they do.

"During our research, myself and several others from the Management Services Division within IDOC learned that more than one person used sticky notes to manage their caseloads due to poor reliability of the systems." said program manager Brian Fariss, who testified in July.

A professional offender management system would maintain a clear, unalterable record of who made changes and retain copies of the original information. This is basic IT stuff. Eighty percent of the hearing testimony could have been reduced to a system printout of the change history.

The reason IDOCs computer system does not support the professional management of the agency is it is actually two independent software programs. One program is so antiquated the software is no longer supported. The other system, CIS, was set up in 2000 to replace the obsolete software. Working with several other states to customize CIS, the department formalized its relationships and shared the software, establishing the National Consortium of Offender Management Systems in 2004. In 2008 the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded a $1.2 million grant to NCOMS—administered by IDOC—to fund further development of CIS to support standards published by the Corrections Technology Association. A decade later, Idaho's CIS still doesn't support the functionality necessary to run IDOC, and is riddled with technical and functional problems.

IDOC used to have a Project Management Office, which coordinated the requirements of independent departments to ensure functional integration with the overall organization.

For example, the PMO was responsible for properly shutting down a system that had been publishing inaccurate reports for years.

"I had been requesting help for years from IDOC to provide information, such as offender programming scheduling and effectiveness, accurate parole dates and other information," said Olivia Craven, retired executive director of the Commission of Pardons and Parole. "Information provided by IDOC was different than ours and it never made sense to me since we used the same system. After the PMO got involved my paper records matched the new reports."

Unfortunately this corroboration of data and close collaboration with the commission was not met with open arms. Cathy McCabe, manager of Research and Analysis, who recently left IDOC, led the effort to shut down the flawed, isolated information system so she could have an accurate source of data for research.

"We were told by IDOC senior leadership that assisting the Parole Commission was a low priority," McCabe said.

What is particularly disconcerting is a professional offender management system under development, funded by the $1.2 million federal grant, was shut down last year by then-Deputy Director Kevin Kempf. This was after the PMO had revitalized the $1.2 million grant. Montana and Idaho decided to rejoin efforts and use the remaining $500,000 to realize the NCOMS vision. Montana agreed to place its improved code, which had resolved many of the CIS problems, under NCOMS. This would have allowed Idaho to leapfrog years of development cost and effort to deliver a production system with the functionality to properly administer IDOC.

However, during this effort Kempf, ignoring professional advice, disbanded the PMO, disrupting the entire development process. As a result, Montana withdrew from the relationship. A few months later, Kempf, newly appointed as IDOC director, eliminated the business analyst positions and isolated the PMO, ensuring it could not function as accepted best practice requires.

This same IDOC leadership group is still scrambling to understand and mitigate the implications of their inexperienced decisions ranging from IT to prisoner health care and treatment.

As one staff member said, "IDOC is run more like a homeowners association rather than the second largest agency in the state of Idaho."

Hang onto your wallets.

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