(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)
(*Editor’s Note: This commentary is one of a series of three dealing with challenges facing Supplementary Security Income beneficiaries. It was updated at 1:38 p.m. on Friday, 11/18/22 to add TJ von Oehsen as an author.)
By Jeffrey Abramowitz and TJ von Oehsen
In Pennsylvania, far more people with disabilities have been incarcerated than are receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI). This comes as no surprise to reentry advocates, who have been hearing about the issues that people with disabilities have in accessing and maintaining SSI for years.
A recent report by Community Legal Services highlights just how difficult it can be for anyone, particularly our most vulnerable residents, to get the help they need.
The Supplemental Security Income application and renewal process is unnecessarily difficult for people coming out of jail and prison. Despite not being SSA’s official policy, many people who are incarcerated have their benefits suspended not just for the amount of time they’re incarcerated, but for the full month of any partial month during which they were incarcerated.
This means that someone who was incarcerated on the last day of the month and who was released on the first day of another month may lose SSI for the entirety of both those months.
If a person is incarcerated for more than a year, they’re automatically terminated from SSI, meaning that when they return home, they must start the application process all over again, even if their disabilities have not changed or have worsened during confinement.
For many, it took months or years to get on SSI before they were incarcerated, and now they must do it all again.
Worse still, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) current policies make no distinction between a person who is pretrial and a person who is convicted, meaning that a person who hasn’t even been proven guilty of a crime will still see their benefits suspended or terminated.
SSI is often the only income that a person has. Without it, they may end up homeless, reincarcerated, or in worse health. We should urge the Social Security Administration (SSA) to rethink their policies on termination and suspension that make the process unnecessarily harmful for people coming home.
When they’re released from incarceration, previous recipients should automatically be entitled to those benefits again. If benefits are not automatically reinstated upon release from incarceration, resources should be provided to people so they can begin the application process for SSI prior to their release.
After being released, it often takes months or years to receive benefits again, and many claimants are initially denied, so it is imperative that people get their application started while they’re still incarcerated. While individuals can currently begin their application or renewal for SSI ninety days before their release, this requires that they know the date of their release – something some people don’t hear until less than a week before. It also requires the support of the staff at the correctional facility, whose responsibility it is to submit medical records for anyone looking to apply.
Reliance on correctional staff to support people isn’t fair to those looking to apply or the case workers themselves. The SSA should create a specialized team that deals specifically with supporting people who are incarcerated in getting their application started early, and if their application has yet to be reviewed by the time a person is released, they should be provided SSI until their claim is approved or denied.
The SSA’s current system is unnecessarily challenging and harmful to people in jail and prison. Previous recipients of SSI should automatically be entitled to their benefits again upon release, and people who are incarcerated but pretrial shouldn’t see their benefits suspended at all.
Those applying for SSI for the first time while incarcerated should be assisted by a specialized team of SSA staff and, in the case that a person is released before their application is approved or denied, they should be provided with SSI until their claim is able to be adjudicated.
It is incredibly sad to know that most people released from incarceration are suffering from some sort of trauma and mental illness. We should be doing everything we can to support people with disabilities in accessing SSI, and this includes eliminating barriers that prevent people in the legal system from getting the support they need.
Jeffrey Abramowitz is a workforce, adult education, and justice advocate. He writes on behalf of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. TJ von Oehsen is a member of the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition and works for Philadelphia’s Office of Reentry Partnerships.
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