Inmate Tracking Systems Breed Errors

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Christopher T. Broady appeared last week on a wanted poster under the words printed in bold: "PRISONER ESCAPE."

But he didn't escape. He didn't even run. Instead, the accused killer was allowed to walk out of the Prince William County jail in a moment of confusion between court and jail officials.

Months earlier, the same jail had kept another inmate, Fernando Cruz, confined two months too long. The problem, officials said, was that his last name was listed in court computers as "Antonio Cruz." To the jail, it was just "Cruz."

The disconnect between two branches of the criminal justice system highlights a fragmented method of tracking inmates in Prince William and other jurisdictions in the Washington region. Although many cities and counties across the country -- particularly those with large immigrant populations -- have used computerized criminal databases for decades that seamlessly share information between courts and jails, the system in area jurisdictions, for the most part, remains disjointed, officials say.

For some, it can create a situation in which a deleted hyphen or a "Smith" spelled "Smyth" can mean an inmate's jail records won't match the court records. The growing immigrant population is particularly susceptible because of the less obvious spellings and the tendency for some to use two last names.

Across the region, officials say they recognize the need to make their court and jail data compatible within each jurisdiction. But for now, most use safeguards that are inconsistent from one area to the next. Some fingerprint all inmates; some don't. Others type in a slew of aliases, while others shun names for numbers.

"The easiest thing would be if the systems could talk, if we could have systems that just work together," said Susie Doyel of the Arlington County Sheriff's Office. "I think September 11 brought that home. We had so many systems that didn't talk to each other."

Arlington's system is similar to Prince William's, in which officials question whether the current system can keep up with an ever-growing and diversifying population.

"We've watched this place grow for years and years, and the complexity of the town has changed," said Col. Charles "Skip" Land, who heads the Prince William jail. "You can't live in the 1980s and expect to get your job done. You have to learn and grow with the population. Otherwise it'll eat you up."

General District Court Clerk Tawny G. Hays agreed. "There is so much that can be done, that should be done. The longer we wait, the harder it's going to be."

Those who work in the criminal justice system will readily admit that errors happen, especially when dealing with inmates, who are not always cooperative, not always willing to offer up personal information.

Corrections officers tell story after story of inmates lying about their identities -- the scared 19-year-old who gives his neighbor's name and address, the convicted felon who claims to be a sibling with a clean record, the inmate who memorizes another inmate's Social Security number and personal information in hopes of sneaking out early.

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