Lehigh Valley

Lehigh students use math to help state prison system

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - It all started with a phone call. 

"There's someone calling from the prison," recalled Tamas Terlaky, Professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at Lehigh University.

Terlaky is known in the world of optimization for solving problems and was sought out by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections because it was having a problem of its own. 

"We are having a problem with population management; assigning the inmates properly," Terlaky was told.

He took that problem to his students and made it into a real world exercise. 

"[The formulas], which are completely describing and representing all the rules and factors and procedures that need to be followed," Terlaky said.

They were heading into uncharted territory, being the first to provide such an approach to the prison system.
"We are the first who tried to optimize a correctional institution," Terlaky said.

"It's been explained as just a push of a button but in order to get to that, a lot of time effort has been spent on this," said Ph.D. Candidate Mohammad Shahabsafa. "The beauty of being able to mathematically model such a complex system."

It took time and a lot of effort to get to this point. 

"I and Mohammed, we used to sit for seven hours straight to try and figure out all we can to make this work," said grad student Anshul Sharma who worked closely on the project. 

But it's been time well spent, revolutionizing the prison system to improve placement and taking a job that once took seven people a week to do and making it able to be done in seconds. 

"It's a great feeling of achievement. I feel like I'm on top of the world," Sharma said.

If there's a better spot than the top of the world for this field, it's the Wagner Prize. The students and their instructor will make a run for that in Houston Oct. 23.

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