Prisoners around US get access to SSNs

In many states, prisoners see personal information as part of their work assignments. In CA's top-security Pelican Bay prison, prisoners got access to guards' personal information. A bill in Congress is going nowhere.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

In an era when stories about breaches of citizens' data appear just about weekly, here's a story to make you feel good about how government officials are handling the data. Prisoners in states across the country routinely have access to Social Security numbers, the Sacramento Bee reports.

In 13 states, prisoners can do data entry, document scanning and other work that potentially provides them with the personal identification numbers. A security breach at a California prison shows what can happen next. "One (California) prisoner found with confidential records reportedly asked an inmate serving time for identity theft to teach him how to use the information," investigators for the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General noted recently.

Some states have taken action. North Carolina stopped letting prisoners see Social Security numbers in their work assignments. Kentucky redactd Social Security numbers from documents processed by inmates.

Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., is looking for federal action. His bill would prohibit inmates of federal, state and local jails and prisons from accessing Social Security numbers. Introduced more than a year ago, the bill is certainly not on a fast track.

Although California law prohibits prisoners from accessing personal information, that's exactly what has happened.

[According to federal investigators,] California prisoners had gained access to Social Security numbers, pension information and birth dates found in a prison warehouse. Although not named by the Office of Inspector General, the description matches events that a lawsuit alleges occurred at the high-security Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City.

"Prison officials do not know how many (California) prisoners might have obtained the personal information," the Office of Inspector General stated, adding that the incident remains under investigation.

Prison guards have filed a lawsuit against the California Dept. of Corrections when prisoners were discovered with guards' private information.

"It's amazing," Christopher Miller, a Sacramento-based lawyer for the prison guards, said Monday. "At the very least, the events suggest a reckless disregard" for securing the documents.

California's not the only state with problems.

At six Tennessee prisons, for instance, investigators found inmates scanning motor vehicle titles, traffic citations and insurance cancellation claims, which generally contained Social Security numbers. At two Oklahoma prisons, inmates were putting payroll records, medical records and vehicle titles onto microfilm.

"The state agencies that contract with the prisons for these services generally save money because prisoners receive lower wages than the general population," the investigators said.

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