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What Prisoners Should Know About Social Security

Correctional facility inmates and prisoners are entitled to certain constitutional rights. Among these are the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and the right to medical care. That includes care for mental illness. Prisoners also have First Amendment freedom of speech rights and the right to practice their religion.

If you're a prisoner, you lose some of the rights and benefits others have. For instance, under federal law, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits generally aren't payable for months you're in jail, prison, or other public institutions after committing a crime.

This article discusses Social Security benefits pertaining to prisoners and inmates involved in the criminal justice system.

The No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act of 2009

The No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act of 2009 (NSSBP) is a federal law. It bars payment of retroactive Title II (disability insurance) or Title XVI (supplemental security) benefits under certain situations. It applies to a beneficiary or recipient subject to suspension because they are any of the following:

  • A prisoner
  • Confined in a public institution based on a court order for a criminal act
  • A fugitive felon
  • In violation of probation or parole

Intent of the NSSBP

When the NSSBP was enacted in 2009, Congress intended to prohibit Social Security benefits payments to prisoners. That included retroactive payments. Under NSSBP, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will not pay retroactive benefits until a beneficiary is no longer a prisoner, probation or parole violator, or fugitive felon.

The law also prohibits paying death underpayments on the record of a deceased beneficiary or recipient. This survivor benefits rule applies if the surviving beneficiary or recipient is not eligible for monthly benefits or payments based on being one of the following:

  • A prisoner, whether in state or federal prison
  • Confined in a public institution based on a court order for a criminal act
  • A fugitive felon or parole violator

Under the No Social Security Benefits for Prisoners Act, Social Security benefit payments are held until a person is no longer incarcerated. Benefits are suspended if you're convicted of a criminal offense and sent to jail or prison for more than 30 continuous days. "Conviction" is the operative word. Benefits are not suspended if you're awaiting trial or pleas.

Suspension of Benefits

Your payments will be suspended beginning with the month you're first incarcerated after being convicted and sentenced. You also won't receive benefit payments if you're confined by court order and at public expense to an institution because you were found incompetent to stand trial. The same is true if you were found guilty by reason of insanity or mental disease.

Here is an example of the timeline of a suspension of payments:

  • You're convicted of a crime, sentenced, and jailed on July 10 for a sentence of more than thirty days. You don't receive your benefits because they've been suspended. You're not eligible for the July payments normally paid in August
  • You're released from jail to a halfway house administered by the Department of Corrections. Your benefits continue to be suspended.
  • You're released from the halfway house and put on parole on Sept. 10. You're now eligible for October benefits. Benefits are reinstated.
  • You receive your first reinstated check in November. Benefits are paid in the month after they're due.

Your payments are suspended if you've been convicted. If you have a spouse or child getting monthly Social Security dependent checks on your record, those benefits aren't suspended. Your spouse or child will continue receiving them.

Supplemental Security Income Benefits Under Title XVI

The Social Security Administration has programs with Social Security benefits. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays a small monthly welfare stipend to people with limited income and resources. To be eligible for SSI benefits, you must be in one of the following categories:

  • Elderly (age 65 or older)
  • Blind
  • Disabled

Like Social Security (SS) benefits, SSI benefits are suspended while you're incarcerated due to a conviction.

Application for Disability Benefits While Incarcerated

If you become disabled while incarcerated, you can apply for Social Security disability benefits while in jail. Benefits won't start to accrue until you've been disabled for five full calendar months or the first full calendar month after your release, whichever is later.

Also, you might be able to use a prerelease agreement. This agreement allows you to apply for SSI benefits before your release and helps ensure that your benefits will come quickly after you leave prison. If you're a current SSI benefit recipient confined for 12 consecutive months or longer, you must reapply and be approved again.

Find Out About Your Rights From an Attorney

As a prisoner, you should know things about your human rights. An experienced attorney can help you in your advocacy for Social Security and other health care benefits.

Contact a civil rights attorney if you or a family member is incarcerated and needs help regarding their Social Security or SSI benefits. An attorney can help you navigate the laws in your jurisdiction and discuss Medicare and Medicaid benefits. They can also help you address other issues, such as prison conditions that violate your constitutional rights.

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