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Prisoners Should Be Wary of Losing Future Benefits

October 1999

What happens to your benefits when you are in prison? Knowing the answer to this question can help you avoid costly overpayments and understand how to have your benefits reinstated upon your release.

Rights Lost

When you are convicted and sent to prison, jail or any other correctional institution, or if a warrant is out for your arrest, you automatically give up your rights to assistance from any public benefits program. Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), California State Disability Insurance (SDI), General Relief (GR), Cal-Works, Food Stamps and Medi-Cal are some of the public benefits programs that withdraw assistance under these circumstances.

If you are in a correctional facility, you should report your incarceration as soon as possible, and return any benefits sent to you after you are incarcerated. Do not make the mistake of believing that your incarceration will not be discovered. Public benefit programs are able to access records that tell them who is in prison, and the Social Security Administration also pays to keep track of who is incarcerated.

If you are receiving either SSI or SSDI, it may take a month or two before your checks stop. Instruct whoever is collecting your mail to return your disability checks, or if your checks are direct-deposited, instruct your bank to return the money to Social Security. If the money is not returned, once Social Security finds out you are incarcerated, they will determine that you have an "overpayment" and will expect you to repay the money.

If you were receiving Food Stamps, GR or Cal Works at the time of your incarceration, your benefits will be automatically terminated when you do not mail back your monthly CA-7 report or when you do not show up to pick up your food stamps or cash aid.

Your Medi-Cal benefits will be terminated once the Department of Social Service is notified of your incarceration or if you miss your annual recertification.

Reinstatement Process

Once you have served your time, it is possible to reapply or have your benefits reinstated. There are two exceptions. You will be considered permanently ineligible for Food Stamps if you have been convicted of a drug-related felony after July 1, 1997. You are considered permanently ineligible to receive Cal-Works assistance if you had a felony drug-related conviction anytime after Jan. 1, 1998. Although you may be ineligible for Cal-Works due to a conviction, your children can still qualify for aid.

General Relief (GR)

To re-establish GR, Cal-Works or Food Stamps, you will need to go to your local DPSS (welfare) office and re-apply for benefits. If you need to re-establish your Medi-Cal benefits, and are not eligible for SSI (Medi-Cal comes automatically when you receive SSI), you have the option of applying either directly through your DPSS office or you can apply through the AIDS Project Los Angeles Medi-Cal workshop. The workshop is held at APLA from 6:30 to 9 p.m. every Tuesday. Reservations are not required.

Julie Cross is a public benefits coordinator in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Benefits Program. She can be reached by calling (323) 993-1475, by e-mail at or by writing to her at APLA, 1313 N. Vine St., L.A. 90028.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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