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Prisoners Allowed to Work Jobs with Access to Social Security Numbers

WASHINGTON - Prisons in eight states let convicts work in jobs that give them access to Social Security numbers and other personal information for the public, despite years of warnings that the practice should end, a federal audit finds.

Most of the prisoners hold jobs processing public records for federal, state and local governments, according to the audit released this month by the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General. The work often involves entering and processing data on documents such as student transcripts, tax files, and health care and labor claims forms.

"Although we recognize there may be benefits in allowing prisoners to work while incarcerated, we question whether prisoners have a need to know other individuals' Social Security numbers," the audit says. "Allowing prisoners access to Social Security numbers increases the risk that individuals may improperly obtain and misuse (the data)."

The audit notes that the Social Security Administration has no power to force states to halt the practice and urges passage of legislation pending in Congress that would bar states from giving prisoners jobs where they have access to private citizens' personal information. States where prisoners hold such jobs: Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

In Kansas, where five prisons allow inmates to hold jobs processing data with personal identifying information, a prisoner was found last year to have stolen names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers while in a job making digital images of public records, the audit says. The data was found in a routine search of inmates when their shift is over.

"We're extremely sensitive to the potential for any kind of access to personal identifying information and have policies ... to limit an inmate's ability to write down any of this information," says Bill Miskell, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections. Those policies, such as inmate searches, have revealed "isolated" cases of inmates trying to steal data, he says, but "we're not aware of any compromise that has resulted in an inmate being able to utilize personal information for illegal purposes."

A previous audit by the inspector general in 2006 found that 13 states allowed prisoners to work in jobs where they had access to Social Security numbers and other personal data. Since then, the new audit says, five of those states have barred the practice.

Shortly after that audit, for example, officials at a Connecticut prison determined through a data security review that an inmate in a records processing job had taken a file containing people's personal information. The file was found in her cell, according to the inspector general's account of the December 2006 incident, and the state subsequently barred inmates from such jobs.

The Social Security Administration will push for legislation to bar prison systems from letting inmates work in jobs where they can access Social Security numbers, the agency says in a written statement. Officials also will consider making direct appeals to states that still allow the practice and asking them to stop.

"It is essential that we rein in the widespread use and display of these numbers and keep them out of the hands of criminals and organized crime groups that now sell stolen Social Security numbers as a source of income," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sponsor of a bill that would prohibit prisoners from handling Social Security data, said in a statement. "Social Security numbers are among Americans' most valuable but vulnerable assets."

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