A glitch in Arizona's prison software has kept inmates locked up past their release dates

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Prisons across the country rely on management software to keep track of their inmates — including tracking when they are supposed to be released. But in Arizona, the state's Department of Corrections has reportedly failed to keep its software up to date. The result, according to whistleblowers who spoke to Phoenix-based NPR affiliate KJZZ, is that hundreds of incarcerated people have been held behind bars long after their sentence was supposed to be up.

The issue with the software stems from a change in Arizona law that paved the way for people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses to be released early. The law change created a credit system that can significantly reduce a sentence if an inmate meets certain goals. It passed in 2019 and went into effect last year, but apparently the Arizona Department of Corrections has not updated its software to incorporate this. Not only that, but according to the KJZZ report, the state agency has been aware that it was short-changing its inmates for nearly two years but did nothing about it.

Under Arizona law, the Department of Corrections is supposed to allow inmates to cut up to three days off their sentence for every seven days spent behind bars, assuming they partake in programs like GED classes or substance abuse treatment. The system can allow a person to serve as much as 70% of their sentence by using these credits.

“We knew from day one this wasn’t going to work.”

But prisons in Arizona have reportedly not accounted for this system at all. “We knew from day one this wasn’t going to work,” a person at the Arizona Department of Corrections told KJZZ. “When they approved that bill, we looked at it and said, ‘Oh, shit.’” Employees of the prisons have apparently tried to raise the issue repeatedly with management, including filing a bug report that notes the credit system “is not in [the software] at all” and that the system “can calculate one earned credit for every six days served,” which is significantly less than the amended law allows inmates to earn. Not only can the system not accurately count credits, but it can’t even identify incarcerated people who are eligible for sentence-reduction programs in the first place, meaning many are missing out on opportunities to get out early altogether.

The result is hundreds of inmates being stuck behind bars despite doing everything required of them to earn early release under state law. “We can’t find people to get them into the programs, and after they complete the programs, we still can’t get them out the door,” a Department of Corrections whistleblower told KJZZ. “These people are literally trapped.” Until the software is fixed, the Department of Corrections is reportedly attempting to calculate credits by hand to determine if inmates are eligible to receive their early release.

The software failure is a big deal under any circumstance, but particularly so in Arizona. The state has one of the highest rates of imprisonment in the entire country, driven largely by a shift in policy dating back to 2000 when the state started putting more non-violent drug offenders behind bars. According to data published by FWD.us, 70% of people behind bars in Arizona are there for non-violent offenses.

There is no evidence that putting non-violent drug offenders behind bars does anything to reduce recidivism; in fact, putting people behind bars for these crimes is actually more likely to result in them committing another offense once they are released. This disproportionately affects people of color, who are incarcerated at a significantly higher rate than white offenders.

Arizona lawmakers at least have the right idea to get people out of the prison pipeline as quickly as possible, but the Department of Corrections appears to be failing the state and its citizens. Instead of addressing the software issue, the Department of Corrections has reportedly simply blocked its employees from accessing the KJZZ report on its failings. It appears there are some technical issues that the agency can address quickly, but it’s a shame the same urgency isn’t in place for helping incarcerated people who have earned their release.