Prison Inmates are Taking $561,000 in Inappropriate Payments

An audit of five counties by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office found that hundreds of county jail inmates received inappropriate payments totaling more than $236,000 from various social welfare programs and almost $325,000 in state unemployment insurance (UI). The inappropriate benefits were caused by deficiencies in how four of the five counties monitored the eligibility of jail inmates for welfare payments, and by a combination of potential fraud and delays providing the state Department of Labor (DOL) with information about inmates receiving UI benefits.

“The state’s social welfare and unemployment insurance programs are supposed to provide a safety net for society’s poor and unemployed to help them make ends meet, not provide jailed criminals with a free ride,” DiNapoli said. “Counties, working together with state policy makers and state agencies, need to do a better job making sure inappropriate payments are stopped and that only the truly deserving get help.”

DiNapoli’s auditors examined welfare payments made by Chemung, Onondaga, Orange, Schenectady and Warren counties from Jan. 1, 2011 to March 1, 2013. Auditors found 313 inmates at the jails in Chemung, Onondaga, Orange and Schenectady counties received inappropriate Safety Net Assistance benefits, with 123 inmates receiving inappropriate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and 75 inmates receiving inappropriate Medicaid benefits. Warren County did not have any inappropriate social welfare benefit payments. In addition, DiNapoli’s auditors found 351 county inmates in all five counties received 1,321 UI benefit payments totaling nearly $325,000 while incarcerated during the audit period.

In New York state, counties provide social welfare benefits to eligible individuals. Each county’s Department of Social Services (DSS) administers these programs, determines applicant eligibility, and is responsible for monitoring their continuing eligibility. The DSS typically seek to suspend welfare benefits after a person is incarcerated by halting payments before the next benefit payment cycle.

Auditors found that each county had procedures to identify inmates that may be receiving social welfare benefits, but the procedures were not always effective or performed timely to identify and discontinue inappropriate payments. For example:

  • In Orange County, an individual incarcerated from Feb. 21, 2012 to April 24, 2012 received benefit payments of $3,964. The DSS never investigated the case during the incarceration.
  • In Onondaga County, an individual in jail from May 4, 2011 to May 21, 2012, received $1,542 in inappropriate benefits during that time. The DSS did not take steps to stop the benefits until Sept. 11, 2011, 130 days after the incarceration began, and only after DSS staff called the individual’s home and was told about the incarceration.
  • In Chemung County, an individual incarcerated on Sept. 13, 2011 received $695 in inappropriate benefits during his first three months of incarceration.

DiNapoli recommended:

  • County jails ensure they provide appropriate DSS officials with timely daily inmate admission reports and daily inmate master reports;
  • DSS officials ensure they retain and use the county jail inmate reports to monitor county inmate eligibility; and
  • DSS officials investigate the appropriateness of the social welfare benefits provided to county inmates in a timely manner.

Counties do not have a legal role in monitoring the eligibility of UI benefits provided to inmates in their custody. However, the New York State Sheriffs’ Association provides the DOL with a monthly listing of jail inmates obtained from county jails. DOL matches this listing against its records of those receiving UI benefits to determine if the benefits should be discontinued. However, DOL often continues to pay inmates up to four weeks of unemployment benefits before it becomes aware of their ineligibility.

UI recipients must recertify their employment status weekly, either by phone or computer, to continue to receive benefits. However, jail officials in all five counties audited said that inmates do not have access to the Internet, so they cannot recertify benefits through the DOL website. Further, auditors found all outgoing calls from the jails begin with an automated message and require the receiver of the call to press a number to proceed. The DOL automated telephone system would not press the number to continue with a jail phone call, so they could not be used to recertify benefits either. Jails in all but Onondaga County prevent three-way calling, which could be used to allow an inmate to recertify. All of the jails audited can block numbers for outgoing calls to prevent inmates from calling DOL to claim benefits. Because the jails limit inmates’ ability to recertify unemployment insurance benefits, auditors believe third-party individuals are committing fraudulent acts by claiming benefits for the inmates.

DiNapoli recommended:

  • State policy makers review the information sharing between the county jails, the state Sheriffs’ Association, and state agencies to provide the DOL with more frequent and up-to-date information on county inmate admissions; and
  • County Jail officials limit an inmate’s ability to potentially recertify benefits while incarcerated by limiting the ability to contact the DOL by telephone.

For a copy of the report visit: http://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/audits/swr/2013/countyinmates/global.pdf

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