The Painful Lessons of a Corrections Crisis

When the Washington Department of Corrections learned a software programming error led to the erroneous early release of 3,000 prisoners, it took three years to address the problem. That led to at least two deaths—and some hard lessons about the need to recognize non-traditional emergencies before they became crises, according to a case study published this month.

Correctional institutions are usually well prepared to address serious emergencies like prison riots, but what happens when they encounter a crisis that staff and authorities never imagined could occur?

That was the situation which confronted the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) when authorities learned a software programming error had led to the erroneous early release of over 3,000 inmates between 2002 and 2015.

According to a case study analyzing the WDOC’s belated response, the episode made clear that correctional and other public institutions need to develop the “situational awareness” to deal with crises for which they had little training.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, showed that authorities could have headed off the crisis earlier if they had responded to a 2012 inquiry from a father who believed the perpetrator of a crime against his son had been released too early.

A request for a “fix” was sent to the Information Technology Unit (IT), but the WDOC failed to address it until 2015. Meanwhile, several of the erroneously released inmates had committed crimes, and were responsible for at least two deaths.

The sentencing miscalculation arose in 2002 following a Washington Supreme Court decision, In re King, which ruled that the WDOC had not awarded “good time” to inmates for the time spent in jail awaiting trial and during trial. But a change in the software programming used to recalculate each inmate’s release date to accommodate the ruling unwittingly led to total earned- time credits that exceeded the statutory maximum.

This resulted in inmates being released, on average, 55 days early.

WDOC’s failure to deal in a timely manner with the error once it was pointed out turned an “emergency into a crisis,” said the study.

Two of the three authors of the study, “The Making of an Institutional Crisis,” were key players in the episode. Dan Pacholke, the state’s Secretary of Corrections, led the emergency response. Sandy Felkey Mullins served on the governor’s staff as his senior policy advisor on public safety and government operations. Bert Useem of Purdue University conducted many of the post-crisis interviews with WDOC staff who had to decide whether and how to bring the inmates back to prison.

The WDOC leadership decided that bringing back offenders post-release to serve additional time on their sentence after several years of liberty would be “fundamentally unfair,” unless the offender had committed a class-A felony.

Specialized WDOC community response units accompanied local law enforcement to arrest inmates who it was decided did need to return to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentence. Unsurprisingly, the legitimacy of the arrest was often challenged by the former inmates—who argued they were being asked to “bear the burden of WDOC’s error” of being released and returned again.

Specialty teams for disturbance control were placed in prison facilities around the state in the event of possible unrest, though no noticeable inmate response arose. And a public communications strategy was developed.

Following the crisis, the WDOC redeveloped its IT procedures and issued instructions requiring anyone on headquarters staff who identified an issue that impacted public safety or critical operations to immediately inform his or her supervisor.

If the issue was not addressed, they were to go directly to agency leadership.

The principal lesson drawn from the episode, according to the study, was that large public agencies must train senior staff to have the flexibility to deal with incidents that are not part of their normal crisis training.

An agency needs to “develop in its culture the alertness not to solve, but rather to recognize, a crisis emergency and quickly mobilize a non-traditional response,” authors concluded.

“Agencies ….must develop situational awareness – thinking through the broad features of the situation and what must be done.”

TCR news intern Brian Edsall contributed to writing this summary. The full journal article is available for purchase only and can be downloaded here. Journalists can obtain free access by contacting TCR Deputy Editor Victoria Mckenzie at