San Quentin prison: IT failure is life or death

San Quentin prison, which holds California's most dangerous criminals, is a technology time capsule: Typewriters and dot-matrix printers are the norm. And this time warp is untenable because it's killing prisoners who get lost in a health care paper shuffle.

San Quentin prison, which holds California's most dangerous criminals, is a technology time capsule: Typewriters and dot-matrix printers are the norm. And this time warp is untenable because it's killing prisoners who get lost in a health care paper shuffle. The solution: An overhaul of the prison's information system where returns are measured on killing fewer prisoners than the year before.

That's the rough overview of a CIO magazine expose by Kim Nash, one of my former colleagues. Kim goes behind the prison system to find health information systems that either don't exist or are paper based and an IT situation so bad the state took it over. In San Quentin one prisoner dies every six to seven days.

Among the moving parts in this tale:

It's all data management. Kim reports:

While the prison healthcare budget had grown from $556 million in 2000 to $1.6 billion last year, most of the money went to staff and medical supplies, not to infrastructure or technology that could have made operations more efficient. "Data management, which is essential to managing a large healthcare system safely and efficiently, is practically nonexistent," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson. "This makes even mediocre medical care impossible."

San Quentin's legacy systems are paper. There's very little about San Quentin that is computerized. Healthcare intake, record keeping and all forms are paper based. One bright side from the state taking over: San Quentin now has networked PCs to view those lab results and print chart labels.

Physical impediments are an IT hurdle. If you want to network your home you punch a few holes in some drywall. Behind bars you're dealing with reinforced concrete, razor wire and stone to keep the bad guys in. Needless to say wireless networks are the technology of choice.

If you think your CFO or CEO is tough try a warden. Another key thread at San Quentin is the management inertia and the primary goal: Keeping inmates behind bars. No one wants to hear about your Oracle database or your virtualization plans if you can't keep tabs on the prisoners.

In the end, it sounds like San Quentin's IT overhaul is underway, but it'll be a few years to determine if the prison kills fewer prisoners due to medical mix-ups.