A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Using Correctional Education Data: Issues and Strategies, January 1997

3. Processing Correctional Education Data

The most complete list of data elements and the best organized data collection effort become meaningless without a system that can handle data entry, data processing, and data reporting. All correctional education programs, whether in small jails in rural communities or in large state or federal prisons, have some type of system for collecting and reporting information on its inmates and program participants. The sophistication of these systems vary, however, from paper and pencil efforts that record and report very basic information to state-of-the-art networked computers that link all facilities in a state to a central office.

Given the current state of technology, the continually declining costs of computer hardware and software, and the growing need for reliable data on correctional education programs, the recommended data processing approach is certainly a computer-based one. This might consist of a stand-alone PC, a networked system of PCs, or a mainframe computer housed within the facility or in another office hundreds of miles away. The process by which a facility or state determines how it will collect, process, and report information is influenced by a range of factors, including finances, personnel, organizational requirements, and internal politics.

This section of the manual presents issues related to data processing that facilities should consider in developing a correctional education information system. It assumes that extensive planning is indispensable. Data systems should not be designed on an as-needed basis. Designers must take a systematic approach in constructing a system that utilizes data from the three primary sources described in the previous section. However, a good system must also be flexible to allow for changes as new needs and interests arise and as additional resources are identified.

Design
Considerations

A number of factors should be considered when designing a system for processing correctional education data.

System
Integration
Issues

Should a correctional education data system function as a stand-alone system or be an integrated component of a larger corrections data system? The advantages and disadvantages of these approaches are discussed below. A stand-alone system is a data system that usually resides on one personal computer in the correctional education program, although it can exist on several computers with data records being appended to a central data base. Stand-alone systems can be contrasted with integrated systems in which education represents only one module of a corrections system (Exhibit 6). Each module (education, inmate location, medical records, job assignments, etc.) comprises a different data base which is maintained by corrections officials. These data bases are typically located within a large mainframe computer or network server. Information in any one module can readily be linked to information in other modules.

Exhibit 6

Advantages of A Stand-Alone System
Versus An Integrated System

    

  • Control over the system
  • Ease of upgrade
  • Customization of reports
  • Structured to meet hardware constraints

  • Lower start-up and maintenance costs
  • Linkage to other parts of corrections system
  • Electronic collection of data
  • More control over security

One of the advantages of a stand-alone data system is the control programs have over the system. The system can be customized to fit the exact data processing needs of the correctional education unit. Upgrades to the system can be made to respond to immediate data processing needs. Reports can be customized to provide users with the information they need in the proper format. The data system may also be structured to meet the existing hardware constraints.

The disadvantages of a stand-alone system are many. The user has the burden of paying for both the hardware and the software. If staff do not have appropriate experience with data system design, resources will be wasted and the system may need to be redesigned. Stand alone systems require maintenance and upgrading. Not only are funds required for these activities, but qualified personnel are also necessary. Security is also a concern. Stand alone systems are sometimes viewed with suspicion by officials or administrators who want to maintain total control and security over any system that resides within their institution.

The advantages of an integrated system start by removing the burden of paying for and maintaining the system from correctional education programs. In addition, being part of an integrated system makes linking to other parts of the corrections system easier. Some integrated systems have the capability to electronically collect the relevant data, thereby freeing correctional education personnel from the responsibility of entering data.

There are several disadvantages of integrated systems. The fact that they are designed and maintained by personnel who have different needs and agendas than some of the system users is one disadvantage of this type of system. For example, corrections officials may only require basic statistics regarding program participation while correctional education personnel may desire more detailed information. While larger corrections data systems may have the resources to design or maintain a correctional education data system, larger systems may also be constrained fiscally from providing the full range of information and reports that correctional education program administrators need.

The Record
Identifier


The inmate identification number is the key variable in a correctional education data system.

From a data management perspective, the inmate identification number is the key data element. It allows linkage with other data systems and is invaluable for linking with state and federal data bases upon post-release. Because two or more inmates can have the same name, it is necessary to have a unique identifier for each inmate so that all information relating to an individual can be accurately attributed to him or her.

While many information systems use an individual's Social Security Number as an identifier, correctional education data systems often use a Department of Corrections (DOC) identification number. The DOC identifier is the primary identifier for other data systems that operate within an institution. The primary disadvantage to the DOC identifier is that recidivating inmates are often assigned new DOC numbers each time they enter the corrections system. Prior information regarding the inmate's past correctional education history (program participation, testing results, demographic information) cannot be easily retrieved when a different DOC number is assigned.

A secondary disadvantage is that the DOC identifier may be of little use when trying to link to other data bases, particularly parole and/or probation data bases that could be used in recidivism studies. One strategy is to include multiple identifiers in the correctional education data base. This requires additional data entry time, but the system will have more flexibility when linking with other data bases. A second alternative is the fingerprint identification number that is used by some corrections systems. While some consider this identification methodology to be underdeveloped and unreliable at this time, others see this as the only unique identifier available in a correctional setting.

Security
Issues

Security issues for data systems are built around the premise of protecting information that should remain private by restricting access to sensitive information. Section 2 presents a variety of data elements that should be entered correctly and efficiently into a correctional education data system. However, the key question here is who assumes the responsibility for data entry. Teachers and administrators in correctional education programs are often overburdened simply providing services to inmates and may resent the extra assignment of data entry. Inmate clerks are a ready source of labor and may benefit from working with advanced data systems.

However, most correctional education systems do not allow inmates access to their data systems. Some correctional education data, particularly testing results, are considered too sensitive for fellow inmates to access. In addition, many correctional facilities have integrated networks with links to other data bases and systems that reside outside the facility. Security concerns by wardens and state-level corrections officials have resulted in policies that do not allow inmates access to correctional data systems.

One option for resolving the conflict between data entry needs and security issues is to design a system with different access levels. Non-sensitive data (background characteristics, program enrollments, attendance) could be entered by inmate clerks who do not have access to more sensitive information. In addition, systems should be designed with other security devices. These include default screen savers that require a password. Passwords should automatically change every 90 days and users should be restricted from using previous passwords.
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[2. Collecting Correctional Education Data] [Table of Contents] [4. Reporting Correctional Education Data]