Computer program matches inmates to appropriate prisons

PENNSYLVANIA — A university engineering department has developed what amounts to a Tinder app for criminals — a computer program that matches inmates with appropriate prisons.

The software, unique in the corrections field, saved the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections approximately $3 million in its first year. Officials said this has resulted in fewer assaults in prisons, shortened wait times for treatment programs by nearly two months, reduced the number of prison transfers and lightened the workload of prison staff.

Corrections officials are surprised no one thought of it sooner.

“It’s pretty amazing, and what we’ve seen so far is that the results are much better,” said Major William Nicklow of Camp Hill State Prison, who oversaw the project. as Director of Population Management for the prison system.

On Tuesday, the Lehigh University team that developed the software received the Wagner Prize, the top international award in the field of operations research practice.

Their work has greatly simplified the work of assigning inmates to prisons.

Previously, prison staff handled inmate assignments one at a time, a laborious and inefficient process that meant inmates lower on the list were at a disadvantage when it came to being placed in high-demand treatment programs. .

The software, by contrast, can affect hundreds of inmates simultaneously, taking into account dozens of factors, including age and other inmate demographics, criminal history, mental illness, and educational and occupational interests, to provide the most appropriate placement for each inmate. It also identifies gang members and inmates most likely to be violent and separates them, reducing the threat in individual prisons.

The software can complete in minutes what took a team of seven people an entire week.

“This very complex problem is modeled mathematically, put into the system, and the system indicates where the inmate should be assigned,” said Tamas Terlaky, one of the program’s developers and a professor in Lehigh’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. . “The benefits are pretty obvious.”

Other correctional services have taken note. At least three other states as well as the federal prison system have asked about the software, Terlaky said.

Gordon K. Morehouse