Lehigh Engineers Win International Honor for Inmate Assignment Model

A “first-of-its-kind” optimization model developed by Lehigh engineers—in collaboration with Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (PADOC)—has received the prestigious Daniel H. Wagner Prize for Excellence in Operations Research Practice for 2017.

The Inmate Assignment Decision Support System (IADSS), which was invented by students and faculty members in the department of industrial and systems engineering, streamlines the assignment of inmates to Pennsylvania’s 25 correctional institutions and has been credited with saving the state millions of dollars.

The Wagner Prize is awarded by INFORMS (the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences), the world’s premier professional association for analytics and operations research. The 2017 Prize was awarded October 23 in Houston at the 2017 INFORMS Annual Meeting.

The development of IADSS, INFORMS announced in a press release, represents “the first time that operations research methodologies have been used to optimize the operations, and built into the routine business practice, of a correctional system. Thus it opens a rich and untouched area for the application of operations research.”

The Wagner Prize recognizes the application of “strong mathematics…to practical problems supported by clear and intelligible writing, the quality and coherence of analysis, [and] good writing, strong analytical content and verifiable practice successes.”

PADOC officials say the Inmate Assignment Decision Support System (IADSS) has “transformed” the inmate assignment process in Pennsylvania and can do the same for state correctional agencies across the United States. In the long run, they say, the system could shorten prison stays and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners commit new crimes—by giving inmates more timely access to the treatment programs they need to earn parole.

PADOC officials have been using IADSS for almost a year to help assign inmates and they plan to switch over to it completely early next year.

In a report released Sept. 1, PADOC officials said IADSS has enabled the corrections department to achieve cost savings and improvements by reducing waiting times for treatment programs, prison assaults and staffing requirements, and by enabling more inmates to be assigned to appropriate correctional institutions.

“Based on these four criteria,” the report said, “we believe that the IADSS has saved the PADOC, and thus saved Pennsylvania taxpayers, approximately $2.9 million during the first year, which will translate into approximately $19.2 million in savings over the next five years.”

IADSS can make hundreds of inmate assignments in a few minutes, a task that requires hours when performed manually by humans. The system is the product of five years of work by graduate students and faculty members in the department of industrial and systems engineering. The group includes Profs. Tamas Terlaky, Louis J. Plebani and George R. Wilson; Ph.D. candidate Mohammad Shahabsafa, graduate student Anshul Sharma, Dan Li ’13 Ph.D. and Chatainya Gudapati ’17 M.S.

Story by Lori Friedman

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