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Tech Leaders Preview Corrections Agency’s Vendor Opportunities

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is focused on streamlining and digitizing processes, consolidating its many tech tools, using more cloud services, and finding new ways to bolster security in state prisons.

The task of overseeing technology for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is one fraught with unique challenges among state agencies. Those challenges — along with some opportunities on the horizon for vendors — were among the topics at last week’s Industry Insider — California Member Briefing in Sacramento.

The Sacramento event featured CDCR’s tech leadership team: Kristin Montgomery, the chief information officer and director of Enterprise Information Systems for CDCR; Edmond Blagdon, deputy director of Integrated Technology and Business Solutions in Enterprise Information Services; and Richard Gillespie, deputy director of IT Operations and Support.
Headshot of Kristin Montgomery.
Kristin Montgomery

First, a look at the department by the numbers:
  • 34 institutions
  • 35 fire camps
  • 60,000 employees
  • 37,000 parolees
  • 96,000 inmates (down from over 170,000)

CDCR’s priorities, according to the three, are:
  • Legislative mandates and lawsuits: “I always say we’re run by legal mandates,” Montgomery said. “And it’s unfortunate, because we can’t really strategize them. ... So when we’re talking about strategic planning, it’s really hard for us to do that, because we’re always being tactical, fighting fires.”
  • Shifting to digital tools and processes: “One of the things I want to credit Kristin for: Getting us more on a digital strategy — getting Wi-Fi throughout the institutions,” Blagdon said. “We’re currently working with our executive management teams on applications ... such as tablets in the hands of our officers to be able to go through the institutions and ... make sure that the inmate has showered, and they’ve gotten their food. And it’s paper-based right now; it just kind of gets old school and crazy.”
  • Automation and consolidation: “From a technology standpoint, if we could start getting things more automated, less paper-based, they’ll have more time to do the things that they need to do right now,” Gillespie said. “It is so overwhelming with paper. ... How do we learn to do more with less? A lot of that involves automation — how do we create workflows? How do we free staff up from these day-to-day activities, to free them up to work on these more valuable, high-end efforts?”

Richard Gillespie
Richard Gillespie
Gillespie summed up the priorities from the operational side: “We’ve got the vocational educational aspect, the connectivity, the tools. There are tools that we’re looking at to be able to build out those workflows in, and we’re going to need your (vendors’) help, because you’re the experts in that regard. ... We have some specific challenges that other people don’t necessarily have.”

Inmates who choose to pursue education while in custody are now able to work on laptops. CDCR uses the Canvas learning management system, which offers about 500 courses. The agency is also partnering with colleges through real-time, face-to-face college courses for which instructors come to the prison and teach classes. CDCR has deployed about 8,000 laptops throughout the institutions, with many more anticipated.

Gillespie noted that security remains a paramount concern to CDCR, and he said technology is helping with that: The department’s statewide video surveillance system is deployed in about two-thirds of the institutions and a budget change proposal (BCP) is in the works to complete the last third.

Body-worn cameras are in place with staff at a number of institutions and officials are looking at drone detection and ground radar. They’re also working on a BCP for managed access, to do more on managing cellphone use. And radio use by staff is continually under improvement.

Montgomery said she regularly meets with CDCR’s directors, shows them her portfolio of projects, and asks them to prioritize.

“Just recently,” she said, “we built one (portfolio) for our Cabinet — our secretary and undersecretary and all of the directors. I said. ‘Here, I’m an open book. You get to see everything that we’re working on, you get to see the priorities.

“Lawsuits are No. 1, BCPs are No. 2,” she said. “So anytime I hear of a lawsuit, we have to jump in. I think that we’re fortunate enough to have a great team that is used to constantly pivoting and being redirected. And also the help of the vendors, you know, being able to jump in, whenever there’s an emergency, whenever something comes up that we do need to pivot or change priorities on, the vendor community has been absolutely helpful in that process.

“Sometimes,” she said, addressing the vendors in the audience, “you guys have come to us, and we say, ‘We’re gonna do this project.’ And we’re working on the data — and all of a sudden, you haven’t heard from us in three months. Yeah, guess what? This thing came in: ‘Sorry. I’m pivoting. I can’t do it.’ I think that you guys probably get frustrated with us. We apologize for that. But that’s why we’re trying to give you all this information — so you understand it’s not because we don’t want to do something; it’s just that something that’s come up is a priority. And we’ll try to communicate that to you as much as we can.”

Blagdon outlined some key projects in the pipeline.

“I can start with one of the cool ones — it’s called a decentralized video and content management system and e-discovery. We have contracted with a company called NICE, and the application we have is called NICE Investigate. The institutions today all have their own systems, they’re not talking to each other, they have their own processes. We’re centralizing this into the system. It’s available, of course, with provisioning and roles that were built into the system — who has access to what — and if we need to share them out with the OIG (Office of the Inspector General) or any other agencies, we can actually share it with them. And they can actually log into the system and look at the video online without having to download it, etc. It’s going to be a true lifesaver for some of our staff that have to spend literally hours and hours trying to pull this video. And it’s 90 days worth of storage, and ... we’ve got probably 50 per month per institution that we have to pull into the system, and it’s just getting larger and larger. It’s really going to help not only with the security, but once we get this in place with the litigation that we get, we’re making sure that we’re going to have enough data to be reporting back out that we are covering this for our state.”

Gillespie noted that in addition to automation and consolidation, more cloud-based opportunities are on the horizon for CDCR.

“Being able to streamline some of the operations and create some automation and workflow is [with] ServiceNow,” he said. “We’re bringing that in as a tool to not only create those workflows, but give us better visibility of our assets and the things that people are working on.

“We’re also looking at cloud services. We’re very early in that process; we are just beginning the process of really developing our cloud strategy. But that is happening. I anticipate that that’s going to take probably 12 months before we get to the point where we’re ready to begin deploying workloads.

Technology and funding aside, Gillespie said one of CDCR’s biggest challenges is recruitment.

“Everybody’s been going through that,” he said, “but what makes our situation a little unique is trying to find somebody in technology that may want to work in a prison. Also, the fact that a lot of our locations are remote doesn’t lend itself to necessarily having the infrastructure near the facility built up to be able to provide high-speed data and the things that we need to really be able to operationalize the processes that we’re trying to do.”
Dennis Noone is Executive Editor of Industry Insider. He is a career journalist, having worked at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies including USA Today in Washington, D.C.