WASHINGTON—Inmates at a California state prison gained access to Social Security numbers, pension information and birthdates in a prison warehouse, according to a report by federal investigators that was issued quietly last month.
"One 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 said in the report.
"Prison officials do not know how many prisoners might have obtained the personal information," the report said, adding that the incident remains under investigation.
The investigators warned that the incident reveals the dangers of letting prison inmates get access to other people's Social Security numbers. The Inspector General's report doesn't name the prison, but it describes events, which match those that a lawsuit alleges occurred at California's high-security Pelican Bay State Prison.
In May, the prison guards' union filed a civil lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections, alleging that Pelican Bay inmates had been found with guards' personal information on multiple occasions.
"At the very least, the events suggest a reckless disregard" for securing the documents, Christopher Miller, a Sacramento-based lawyer for the prison guards, said Monday.
The California Department of Corrections contends in court that the alleged Pelican Bay incidents were anomalies and not part of a systemic problem. Department officials couldn't be reached for comment on Monday.
In 13 states, including Kansas, prisoners do data entry, document scanning and other work that could give them access to other people's personal identification numbers.
The Social Security investigators found inmates at six Tennessee prisons scanning motor vehicle titles, traffic citations and insurance cancellation claims, which generally contained Social Security numbers. At two Oklahoma prisons, inmates were converting payroll records, medical records and vehicle titles into 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 explained.
Relatively few prisoners nationwide have access to such personal information. Only about 1,400 inmates, including 426 in California, had such access in 1999, according to a survey by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Nevertheless, the potential problems have prompted North Carolina to stop letting prisoners see Social Security numbers in their work assignments. Kentucky uses computer software to redact Social Security numbers from documents used by inmates. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are considering a nationwide ban on prisoners' access to the numbers.
"Clearly, there is need for a comprehensive law to better protect the privacy of Social Security numbers and protect the American public from being victimized," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., when he introduced a bill to prohibit inmates of federal, state and local jails and prisons from accessing Social Security numbers. The federal Bureau of Prisons already prohibits such access.
Although it was introduced more than a year ago and co-sponsored by 44 members of the House of Representatives, Shaw's bill isn't on a legislative fast track.
States are doing what they can, but not always effectively.
A 1998 California law, which was passed following reports of breaches at Wasco State Prison, bars state prison inmates from having access to confidential information.
Minnesota prohibits "high-risk" inmates from taking sensitive jobs. In Texas, inmates who previously misused information gained through a work program won't get a second chance.
Investigators, however, suggest that more may be needed.
"Although prisons placed controls over Social Security number access, vulnerabilities remain," the Office of Inspector General investigators said.
The Social Security Administration recently wrote the American Jail Association and other groups warning of the potential risks.
"We believe that prison officials should safeguard Social Security numbers by not allowing prisoners access to any documents, screens or data collection fields that display" the numbers, the Social Security Administration said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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