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Taxpayers should be outraged by Social Security payments to inmates

As I See It

Do prisoners receive Social Security benefits? Surely not! The taxpayers are already footing their room, board, medical care, color TV and basketballs and other entertainment needs. Surely even the gushing-blood, bleeding-heart liberals amongst us would not suggest that inmates should be paid Social Security also.

A recent article from The Wall Street Journal revealed that William Bonin, California`s infamous “freeway killer,” spent 14 years on death row at San Quentin. He was executed in 1996. During his term in prison, while awaiting execution, he collected about $80,000 from Social Security. He received a check from the U.S. Treasury every month, some as high as $589.

It is unlawful for prisoners to receive Social Security benefits – Bonin was defrauding the system. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has always said it was vigilant about such crimes, but the Bonin fraud was discovered only when his death papers were being shuffled.

Relatives of Bonin`s victims demanded explanation. Social Security conducted an internal investigation which concluded that Bonin`s benefit payments were a fluke. However, Congress conducted it`s own investigation and concluded otherwise.

Under pressure from Congress, the SSA`s inspector general, David Williams, admitted that some 60,000 inmates were receiving Social Security benefits to the tune of $500 million a year.

With the current interest in reforming Social Security, the fraudulent prisoner benefit arena seems like a good place to start. Shutting down ineligible inmate benefits would seem an easy waste to avoid. Alas, it is not so. It seems that the Social Security computer system has little capability to identify prisoners. In fact, the Social Security program requires CONVICTS TO INFORM the SSA when they go to jail so that the agency can stop their benefits. Fat chance of that happening!

Jailed beneficiaries are assisted in the fraud by having their checks electronically transferred. According to The Wall Street Journal, about 70% receive their payments through such electronic funds transfer – making detection much harder. Some have checks mailed to family members. And yes, believe it or not, some have the checks mailed to themselves in jail!

Jailers see prisoners getting Social Security checks and know that it is a violation of the law. However, federal regulations keep them from investigating the eligibility of inmates for benefits. Some law enforcement officials have cited fear of time-consuming lawsuits from prisoners as cause of their inaction. Shame, shame!

Computer cross-checking between Social Security and jail populations should make preventing such fraud a cinch. Apparently it is not done and even when swindlers are caught they are almost never prosecuted; their payments are merely suspended until their release. Indications are that Social Security staff members are rather indifferent towards the problem. It`s not like $500 million a year is significant enough to get excited about or anything. Complacency and indifference pervades the patch of ground within the Beltway.

Social Security isn`t the only program from which prisoners profit.

A General Accounting Office study of four states last year found that roughly 12,000 inmates were receiving illegal food stamp benefits because of the program`s reliance on “client provided information” to control abuse. Extrapolated to 50 states, perhaps there are as many as 150,000 illegal food stamp recipients behind bars!

I find this entire issue incredible beyond belief. Not since my time in the military have I encountered evidence of such total lack of regard for the spending of public funds. It seems to me that taxpayer outrage is justified. If solving a $500 million ANNUAL crime in the Social Security system is not worthy of some effort by our elected officials trusted with running the federal government, then I think we have the wrong group in Washington.

Thought for the Moment

Nobody now fears that a Japanese fleet could deal an unexpected blow on our Pacific possessions…radio makes surprise impossible.

– Josephus Daniels,

Secretary of the Navy, Oct. 16, 1922

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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