In a development that could hamper progress on complying with a federal court-ordered reform agreement, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office hit the eject button last week on a contract to replace its 1980s-era jail management computer system after spending $360,000 on it.
The new software and database package from Texas-based Tyler Technologies was supposed to revolutionize the jail’s aging tech infrastructure. But officials say that after Gusman signed the contract in March 2017, they realized it would never live up to their expectations without further, costly modifications.
Criminal District Court judges and clerks also worried that the new tech package would cripple their access to information without more pricey plug-ins.
With the cancellation of the contract on Nov. 26, it could take years and at least $3 million more before the jail receives a new system.
In addition to the money spent on the contract thus far, more invoices could arrive from Tyler Technologies over the next few months.
The jail may be left with little or nothing to show for all that money. Invoices show the jail spent $250,000 on a software license plus thousands more on project management costs and travel expenses, but the system never went online.
"We are in the process of evaluating what portions of it we can utilize," said Blake Arcuri, the Sheriff's Office general counsel.
New Orleans City Council President Jason Williams said he is exploring options for a refund. “Sometimes you get what you paid for," he said. "That’s what I suspect happened here.”
The graphical user interface for the jail’s current management system looks like something out of the 1983 movie “WarGames,” with glowing green text on a black background.
The jail database, which was built more than 30 years ago, holds records on inmates' locations, their health histories, use-of-force records and more. It is housed on a hulking server at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters.
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Computer technology played only a minor role in jail administration then, but these days it is used for everything from tracking inmates' locations to tallying the funds in their commissary accounts.
“It’s kind of the information hub of a jail,” said Steve J. Martin, a corrections consultant who was involved in the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the Orleans Parish Prison.
The jail’s 2013 court-ordered reform agreement says it must obtain a new computer management system that can classify inmates to appropriate jail tiers to help prevent rapes and keep warring gang members away from each other.
Another requirement is for an automated early warning system that can sound an alarm when deputies seem to be sliding into a pattern of misconduct.
The Sheriff’s Office put out a request for bids in spring 2016. The seven vendors who submitted proposals included industry leaders like Global Tel Link. The city’s Office of Information Technology and Innovation rated its proposal as “fully compliant” with the jail's needs.
But Global Tel Link’s proposal was also the priciest of seven bids, a jail official said. When Gusman signed the contract for a new management system in March 2017, it was with a less costly option from Tyler Technologies, based in Plano, Texas.
City tech gurus warned that Tyler's software represented an “inadequate solution.” It would require a host of expensive custom tweaks, and it would not be able to track information like deputies’ use of force, they said.
Nevertheless, Gusman signed the contract. Although the document bears Gusman’s name alone, Arcuri described it as a joint decision between the Sheriff's Office and the administration of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
“I think it was a mutual decision that this was the best that they could afford, and we could get,” Arcuri said. “And we did think at the time that this product would be able to fully accommodate our needs with the modifications that Tyler told us they could make.”
Williams, the councilman, said he believes the decision was made on a cost basis. “I don’t suspect foul play or anything nefarious. I just think they came in with a low bid,” he said.
For $1.4 million overall, Tyler promised to give the jail its new software system, as well as a second system to keep track of the sheriff’s finances and a third system to track Civil District Court subpoenas.
The jail management system was the most expensive part of the package, at $685,000. Each of the three systems would also require about $50,000 a year in maintenance costs.
But if local officials were hoping to save money by selecting Tyler Technologies, they may have been penny-wise and pound-foolish. Almost from the start, the limitations of Tyler’s system became evident, according to officials familiar with the process.
“There was always this uncertainty that they could do what was asked,” said Tenisha Stevens, Mayor LaToya Cantrell's criminal justice commissioner.
In July of this year, the Sheriff’s Office sent a letter to the company warning that it had “growing concerns” about the software. Tyler’s system would require expensive plug-in software to ask inmates a list of 47 questions needed to classify them to the proper tiers.
“(T)his agency operates on a strict budget and neither anticipated, requested nor received the significant funding necessary to purchase such a system, particularly when the agency was assured that Tyler’s alleged state of the art system would be able to accommodate the same classification functions,” the letter said.
Meanwhile, Criminal District Court judges were also raising alarms. In an unusual arrangement, the jail’s old database also buttresses the electronic dockets used by judges, attorneys and clerks to track cases. Tyler’s software would require expensive modifications to power the court dockets going forward.
Last week, the Sheriff’s Office wrote Tyler a second letter formally canceling the part of its contract that covered the jail management system. The Sheriff’s Office said it would maintain its contracts for the financial and civil service systems.
Tyler Technologies declined comment.
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Stevens said the city plans to open a bidding process to build a central system for the jail, the Criminal District and Municipal Courts, and the clerk of Criminal District Court.
The city plans to put out a request for proposals by March. Stevens said she expects the integrated system to cost in the range of $3.2 to $3.5 million.
Although that figure is several times the $685,000 contract the Sheriff’s Office signed for its jail management system, Stevens describes the new project as an overall cost savings because it would do double duty as an electronic hub for the courts and clerks.
The Sheriff’s Office can also stop spending money on modifications to Tyler’s system, she said.
But the Sheriff’s Office and one watchdog group worry that the new bidding process will slow down the jail’s already lagging push to come into compliance with the 2013 federal reform judgment, which was spurred by inmate deaths and rampant violence inside the jail.
“At least theoretically, that system is really what any city of this size needs,” Arcuri said of the latest plan. “However, of course there’s concern as to how long such a process will take."
Emily Washington, an attorney at the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, which represents jail inmates, said she also worries that the bidding process will become another impediment to progress.
“We’re kind of back at ground zero, so that is concerning to me,” she said. “I could probably go through and find a million areas of the consent judgment that are impacted by not having a current, functioning jail management system.”