back to article Software bug sets free thousands of US prisoners too early

Washington State Department of Corrections is facing an investigation after it released more than 3,200 prisoners too early due to a software bug. "These were serious errors with serious implications," Governor Jay Inslee said in a statement. "When I learned of this I ordered [the Department of Corrections] to fix this, fix it …

  1. Your alien overlord - fear me

    Well, I'd put some of those responsible in the clinky - I hear they've got some freed up rooms :-)

  2. elDog

    Looks like there wasn't a good incident tracking system in place - and followup

    I hate to say something so obvious. Actually I wanted to blame it on VB6 or Java or something.

    But the error had been reported many years earlier and wasn't dealt with. Perhaps bug-tracking software wasn't available 10 years ago?

    Or, in an effort to minimize costs, the administration hired the inmates to do the coding.

    1. td97402

      Re: Looks like there wasn't a good incident tracking system in place - and followup

      I'll give you Java and raise you by saying it was an Oracle job. Anyone want to take a bet?

      1. Roq D. Kasba

        Re: Looks like there wasn't a good incident tracking system in place - and followup

        You may be onto something with the Oracle, or at least whatever DBMS they use. Something in my waters says there's a poorly implemented join somewhere - easy to do, consequences can be subtle, born of tinkering with an existing system to make it more complex, easy to miss erroneous results in testing, and every junior developer thinks they're a database expert.

      2. jonathanb Silver badge

        Re: Looks like there wasn't a good incident tracking system in place - and followup

        You could get the calculation logic wrong in any language surely?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The median early release time was 49 days.

    Why use median?

    As an analyst by trade I know you can make any numbers look fantastic depending on how you spin it.

    1. Archimedes_Circle

      Perhaps because the number of days that someone is released early from prison, amongst people who were released early, is a Poisson process, which means that it is discrete, and could quite likely be non-symmetric. So they chose a value that better indicated the centre of the distribution and was less prone to outliers.

      Why use any number?

      They're all just somebody's lies.

      1. Richard 12 Silver badge

        Use all the numbers!

        Min, mean, median, mode, max...

        Heck, just publish the complete list. It'd make several pretty graphs.

      2. Tom 13


        Without more information the median is as useless as a mode or median. In this instance I'd want all three.

    2. Sooty

      My guess would be that median was used because when they worked out all 3, it was the lowest value. Or maybe I'm just being cynical.

      If a large number, but less than half, were released really, really early, median probably makes them look the least incompetent.

    3. DropBear


      Well, if they had a hundred one-day errors, a hundred ten-year errors and one 49 day error, the median would be 49 - the average, a wee bit more...

    4. Gannon (J.) Dick

      Many US Prisons have been Privatized, that is, run for profit by private corporations.

      Corruption is virtually unknown, of course, but it will be a whole lot of fun seeing how the Prison Officials account for food uneaten by missing prisoners. I believe we will find that the "Mean" is used more often than strictly allowable by law.

  4. a_yank_lurker Silver badge


    If the patch was ready several years ago why wasn't installed? Also, does anyone in Washington state believe in QA? Questions, questions but no answers.

    Also, I suspect the final report will not recommend anyone be sanctioned/charged/etc. for this blunder.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: OOPS???

      Also, I suspect the final report will not recommend anyone be sanctioned/charged/etc. for this blunder.

      Probably not. But fingers will be pointed. Some poor long retired or dead programmer will be blamed and all will be well. The fact that IT was probably outsourced to save some money might be blamed but then whatever politician thought it was a great idea will take the heat. But nevertheless, there will be gnashing of teeth and displays of outrage since we're in election season.

      As for the former prisoners, I wonder how many will be rounded up and returned to serve out their time? I expect that they will spend millions on doing this and many of the former inmates who have got out and hopefully led good lives will now face losing jobs, etc. because the state wants to serve justice and lock them back up for a month or two.

      The only winners in this will be whatever politico makes the most of the publicity.

      1. Tom 13

        Re: As for the former prisoners,

        I'm a law and order type as far and hard on it as you can get before you fall into outright thuggery calling itself law and order.

        On this count I'd have to say the prisoners have been discharged by the state and are free. It's not their fault the state didn't properly keep track of the time they served and they were released early.

        As to the jackalope who delayed the patch... Yeah, he wouldn't want me for his judge. I'd probably make HIM serve all the time for all the prisoners he let out early.

  5. Adam 1

    So was the recidivism rates amongst those who did not serve the full sentence any worse than those who were let out at the right time?

    1. therebel

      Good question.

      Wonder if any of those early releases committed a murder. If the victim's family ever discovered they were let out early then the law suits will be flying.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      When a swat team arrives at the employer of one of the ones who did turn their life around and get a job - and drags them back to jail for 3 days - I suspect the re-offending rate will go up

  6. Captain DaFt

    Well, so much for reform

    Get out of prison, turn your life around, get a career, a family, a home, put your previous life behind and be an upstanding citizen, and then find out you're going back to prison, for their mistake?

    That would really mess up your day.

    Seriously, If some of the released have kept out of trouble, why should they have to go back, aside from some bureaucracy's paper work being tidy?

    1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

      Re: Well, so much for reform

      Since the state screwed up I can see this one heading to the ferals if the state tries to lock any back up.

      1. micheal

        Re: Well, so much for reform

        "Since the state screwed up I can see this one heading to the ferals if the state tries to lock any back up."

        Any of Madhoff's friends? state officials?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Well, so much for reform


      Should be 'written off' for all but the worst few, where it might be put to good use.

    3. SolidSquid

      Re: Well, so much for reform

      I was wondering the same here. If there's been releases within maybe a month then sure, I could see those people being brought back, but given they screwed up bad enough that it's been 3 *years* since the issue was found and it's not been fixed it seems like that should fall on them to just accept it. If it hadn't been so long ago then parole might have been a more reasonable response (basically converting the remaining time to parole time), but after 3 years I doubt even the parole time would still be running, especially if the median early release is a month and a half

  7. P. Lee Silver badge

    49 days?

    Hardly anything to worry about.

    Unless of course, you're a US whitegoods manufacturer and your labour pool shrunk...

  8. John Tserkezis

    Idiocracy pretty much nailed it.

    Joe Bauers: Hi, excuse me, um, I'm actually supposed to be getting out of prison, today, sir.

    Prison Guard: You're in the wrong line dumbass. Over there.

    Joe Bauers: I'm sorry, I ain't mean to be a big dumbass, sorry.

    Prison Guard: Ay, aw, let this dumbass through.

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

      Re: Idiocracy pretty much nailed it [to a cross?].

      Joe Bauers> [...]

      "nicked" from The Life of Brian, I'd guess.

      On another note, I wonder if there are any overflow bugs lurking there? Anyone think that an 8-bit unsigned value is enough to hold the "years_left" field?

      1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

        Re: Idiocracy pretty much nailed it [to a cross?].

        Not really, Idiocracy is pretty much a documentary created by a fearless time traveller who came back from the future to warn us what it could be like..

  9. backdoor

    surely its normal to check these things

    I ain't no software guy, but surely in a prison in particular, any sort of software that controlled something as central as release dates would be double checked, at least on an annual basis, to be sure it was accurate and still working fine.

    You would think they would audit it or check it maybe even on a monthly basis.

    It seems very strange to me.

    Would the sellers of the software be up for a lawsuit/s from the prison and maybe some families?

    1. Richard 12 Silver badge

      Re: surely its normal to check these things

      Computer says you go home now. Bye!

    2. david 12

      Re: surely its normal to check these things

      " but surely in a prison in particular"

      Prisons operate with almost no feedback. The only people watching what happens are the prisoners, and nobody cares about their opinion.

      This mostly includes the release date. Prisoners get "time off for good behaviour" which is under the control of the prison admin, and can be revoked. And they get "parole", which is under the control of the parole board, and can be revoked, but in general they don't have a right to immediate release even if they are eligible for "parole", and it's all subject to administrative processes, and even the guards don't know who is going to be released, let alone the prisoners.

    3. Tom 13

      Re: surely its normal to check these things

      You ain't no servicedesk guy either. From where I sit, it's even more obvious nobody would bother to check.

      And that's assuming there's someone in the organization who knows how to run the maths TO check it.

  10. Dan 55 Silver badge

    "fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right"

    Pick any two...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right"

      I'll have Fast and Right, please.

      Thanks. Merry Christmas!

  11. Suricou Raven

    I've seen this on TV.

    There was an old series, Bugs, which had a rather cool prison escape. The tech-genius villain made a deal with the prison operator: They give him external communication, he applies his great financial skill to run a share trading and business operation from within his cell. No-one need know the mysterious CEO is a prisoner. The scheme is a huge success, the warden gets rich, the villain gets richer... until he has enough wealth to simply buy the prison and order his own release. By the time the prisons authority figures out what happened he is long gone.

    1. vmistery

      Re: I've seen this on TV.

      That show was amazing! But they never finished it!

  12. Chris G Silver badge

    Fix it right

    A tautology. How is it possible to fix it wrong?

    Talking of law suits, if they were trying to get me back inside because of their mistake, they would be speaking to my lawyer. Especially if I was refomed, I would be looking for damages for all kinds of things if I actually had to go back.

    1. BinkyTheMagicPaperclip

      Re: Fix it right

      Not tautology - bodge, or work around an issue. The specific issue is 'fixed', the root cause isn't. Alternatively fix it in a way that does resolve the root issue, but makes such a mess of the system that the next time it needs to be enhanced, it's almost impossible.

    2. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: Fix it right

      Just look at the number of patches that have introduced other bugs, and require further patching (which introduce other bugs, etcetera ad nauseam), or need to be rolled back.

      Although I would call them 'fixes' (between quotes)

    3. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Fix it right

      "How is it possible to fix it wrong?"

      Um, you do know this is an IT-related site, right?

  13. volsano

    UK Not much better

    Quantum or LIDS (the article isn't clear which system had the problem) not so much better for the UK prison service:

  14. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Progress Bars

    This metaphor for elapsed time in applications is notoriously inaccurate. A case of reality mimicing the machine?

    1. Adam 1

      Re: Progress Bars


  15. LDS Silver badge

    Oh, the irony...

    The Department of Correction that couldn't correct a bug...

  16. David Pollard

    Cruel and unusual?

    Would it not be a cruel and unusual punishment to send a convict on their way, telling them they are free to go, then some while later to collar them for a further term of imprisonment?

    1. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Cruel and unusual?

      Especially since they did nothing to be released earlier - it wasn't their fault - maybe those who didn't correct the issue properly when notified of it should be jailed for a while?

  17. Fatman

    A SERIOUS case of """What if"""

    From the article:

    <quote>The issue stemmed from a 2002 ruling by the state's supreme court that allowed prisoners to claim "good time" credits from when they had been held in jail before being sentenced to prison. </quote>

    WHAT IF... you had a prisoner who was released early, let's say back in 2003, 2004, 2005, etc; who turned their life around, and now has to contend with The Long Arm of the Law arriving to snatch him from his (or her) current life situation and be expected to serve out some amount of time from so long ago, all in part due to the state screwing up.

    At what point should "sleeping dogs be left alone"? If I were in that situation, and I were """snatched back""" to serve out some small amount of time, I would be looking to find the best plaintiff's lawyer I could get and sue the hell out of somebody. And, maybe make a "Federal case" out of it while I am at it. If I were Washington stae DOC officials, I would be very careful about how to proceed in dealing with long released prisoners, lest I be spending a lot of time in court rooms as a defendant.

    1. gnasher729 Silver badge

      Re: A SERIOUS case of """What if"""

      "At what point should "sleeping dogs be left alone"? If I were in that situation, and I were """snatched back""" to serve out some small amount of time, I would be looking to find the best plaintiff's lawyer I could get and sue the hell out of somebody. "

      I probably see this much too logical...

      These prisoners could get up to 1/3rd off their sentence for good behaviour. That should logically be extended to the time they are out of jail. So if someone was released 100 days early, and spent 300 days outside jail without doing anything wrong, then that should take care of the 100 days early. Plus if someone can reasonably claim that going to jail would be an unusual hardship (fear of losing their job), then they should be able to do say 40 days remaining jail time over 20 weekends.

      But I fear that would be too logical...

      On the other hand, if someone has returned to jail anyway, then I would agree that the miscalculated time should be added back.

      1. Vic

        Re: A SERIOUS case of """What if"""

        So if someone was released 100 days early, and spent 300 days outside jail without doing anything wrong, then that should take care of the 100 days early.

        It would be easier to consider the time since release as time on parole; if the subject has stayed on the right side of the law in that time, the sentence should be considered served.


  18. Paul Johnson 1

    How to miss the whole point of reforming prisoners

    Quote: "The authorities are now trying to find prisoners who were let out early and will send them back to the cooler to finish off their time inside."

    So lets say you did your time and you are trying to go straight. Despite all the usual problems with being an ex-convict, over the past year you've managed to land a minimum-wage job, rent a room somewhere cheap, and start trying to put some kind of order in your life.

    And then the prison department decides to haul you back in for another 40 or 50 days. Its totally meaningless as far as punishment is concerned, but by the time you get back out your job and room have evaporated, and you are back to square one again.

    1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

      Re: How to miss the whole point of reforming prisoners

      One would hope that a blind eye would be turned to those who were making every effort to be model citizens. I suspect that those being sent back to prison would be those that had subsequently re-offended.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: How to miss the whole point of reforming prisoners

        Except the prisons (and their shareholders) are paid for the number of prisoners.

        So the ones who are being good will be easy and cheap to find and re-imprison.

        Those who have re-offended and are in another prison can't be charged for and those who have moved away or are on the run will be too expensive to catch

      2. Tom 13

        Re: One would hope that a blind eye

        Not a chance. The Dept of Corrections dumbocrats have been caught being incompetent. The public wants their heads on a pike. No chance they'll be giving thought to anything other than placating the public.

  19. Steve C#

    Same old story in Washington State

    I live in Washington State. The state and local governments have been run for many years by incompetent, very politically correct, bureaucrats that are constantly being sued for their screw-ups. Rarely is anyone fired/sacked and they are often promoted. This is especially true for WA State Child Protective Services, their total in lawsuits paid out was over $150M a year ago. This does not include active or unresolved lawsuits.

    Another example, the WA State Legislature and Democrat Governor are currently trying to find a way to impeach the WA State Auditor, a Democrat. He was indicted for federal income tax evasion, lying to investigators, concealing millions of dollars, and making repeated false statements.

    This issue was probably bad programming of the software and not the software itself. Yes, blame the software, not the incompetent personnel. The real crime here is that the Department of Corrections has know about this for years and has kept it hushed up. Why release the news just before Christmas? Well, it is between elections and a good time to bury the news...

    Tacking on new prison time should be done only if the convict released early is once again in prison, either due to a new conviction or a probation violation. The goal should be reform of the individual and not punishment for punishment sake. But then, bureaucrats don't think that way.

    1. Tom 13

      Re: The goal should be reform

      I don't concur on that. While that should be part of the goal, there is also a goal in proper punishment itself.

      That being said, it was the Dept or Ineptitude that screwed up. The state discharged them as sentence served. That shouldn't be revocable. We law and order not reform types can be real hard asses about that. You can't build your life if the rules keep changing randomly.

  20. heenow

    Par for the course...

    No surprise here. Instead of IT just crapping on their employer's workers, they took their inherent incompetence to the state level.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Back to US Prison makes sense...

    ... when you remember these are private for profit organisations

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Old news

    No, not "old news" as in already reported. "Old news" as in this has been known about for a long time.

    I have a family member who was incarcerated in Washington State, and was released about 24 months ago. As an inmate in the penal system, he knew all about this 'early release bug'. Depending on which system was used, the inmate's 'Expected Release Date' would vary.

    Most of the Department of Corrections knew about it too. They would use it to screw with prisoners - "You are going to be released on this date." Then a month later, once the prisoner's family was notified, plans made, schedules arranged, etc, they would revise the release date to be the correct one.

    The WA DOC never hesitated to make victims of the family as well, creating bureaucratic problems to punish us for the offender's crime.

  23. Gannon (J.) Dick

    The Taxman's Secret Santa


    Amazon and E-Bay just invented a "Just In Time" service delivery scheme that works for the Public Sector!

    Dear State of Washington, was that gift postmarked "Redmond" by any chance ? I think I know who your Secret Santa is.

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