The program shows that Sysco, the food vendor, may be bilking the state.
Thanks to three technology-savvy inmates, Oklahoma may soon be able to save $20 million on its prison costs.
About two years ago the inmates — whose names have not been released by the state’s Department of Corrections — worked with their supervisor at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center to create a computer program that saves the state’s prison money by tracking whether or not an inmate has already gone through the food line.
According to a report from the Daily Oklahoman, the software allows prison officials to track how popular a meal is so they know how much food to order, track which tools inmates use to complete jobs, and compare how much prisons in the state spend on food and supplies.
The program could also be used to prevent lawsuits by alerting prison officials when an inmate should be given a diabetic, Halal or Kosher meal.
The tracking program has been in use for the past two years at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center, a medium-security facility, but now three state representatives want to bring the program to the state’s other prisons.
Last week Republican Reps. Bobby Cleveland , Scott Martin, and Jason Murphey toured the medium-security facility and met with corrections officials and the inmates who created the program.
One benefit the program has already delivered is showing the disparity between the cost of food items being delivered to two different prison facilities from the state’s food vendor.
In October 2009 the state signed an agreement with Sysco, making the Houston-based company the sole food provider for 181 of the state’s agencies until August 2015.
“It does kind of expose the waste at all the other facilities. It was just one of those genuine, lightning-strikes things,” Murphey said about the program, adding that many correctional facilities in the state use pen and paper to track pricing and intake.
“When you deal with the way state government spends money, billions of dollars go through the system,” Murphey said. “You’re always dependent upon those at the ground level to report what’s going on. Here in this facility, you had those employees at the ground level taking their jobs very seriously.”
In response to the findings that Sysco was charging prisons different prices for the same food items, Leonard Hymel, president of Sysco’s Oklahoma facility, said the price difference was due to market fluctuations.
“Our prices change,” Hymel said. “We purchase weekly, sometimes multiple times a week depending on the product, and that can be different due to marketing conditions.”
Charley Wilson, a Sysco spokesman, reiterated similar statements, saying that perishable items such as poultry and produce vary in price based on the time of year.
Though Murphey said he understood that the fluctuating food prices could easily be explained by demand, he said the state needed to confirm that the market was solely responsible for the price variations.
“If those concerns are valid, we ask if they are real anomalies or systemwide,” Murphey said. “If they’re systemwide it’s a big, big deal.”
The next step for state officials, Murphey said, is to meet with those in the Central Purchasing Division of Oklahoma Management and Enterprise Services to better understand how contracts are monitored.
John Estus is a spokesman for OMES. He said contracts the state has with companies like Sysco are reviewed quarterly and that it is up to an individual agency to alert the purchasing division of any concerns.
Estus added that the Corrections Department has not filed any complaints against Sysco and said it is possible for individual agencies to purchase items from another vendor if it will save the state money.
Though the possibility of saving $20 million is appealing, some expressed concern that since the program was created by inmates, they could have implemented some features into the system that would benefit the prisoners.
The Department of Corrections has not released information identifying the inmates, but the agency reported that one is currently serving time for a sex-related crime, one murder, and the third has been released from prison.
“It would be so easy for inmates who are savvy to build backdoors, even if the code is audited after it is deployed, if it is inmate-maintained,” Murphey said. “If you have inmates writing code, there has to be a continual auditing process,” he said. “Food in prison is a commodity. It’s currency.”
Martin and Cleveland, however, say that inmates with relevant skills should be allowed to share their ideas. Martin said the state should use the inmates technology skills to its advantage.
Cleveland agreed, saying “They built a system that could save the state millions of dollars. I want to get the state using this thing.”