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Social Security Disability Benefits for Ex-Offenders


Beware of False Information

People who have been recently released from jail or prison, including those on parole and probation and those who have served the maximum sentence for their crimes (“max-outs”), should know that some people are giving out documents (papers) with false information about their rights to Social Security benefits. The pages of these documents are often smudged and hard to read. They do not give a legal source for the information. The two paragraphs below describe these documents.

  • The First Thirty Hours. One document, “The First Thirty Hours,” states that you may be entitled to emergency Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits of $1,500 if you take your parole or release papers to the local Social Security office and explain that you are recently released and emotionally and mentally unprepared to hold a job.

  • Ex-Offender Benefits. Another packet of documents labeled “Ex-Offender Benefits” states that there are federal laws allowing ex-offenders with emotional problems to claim that they are “100% disabled” and should “automatically qualify” for SSI benefits.

All of the information described in the two paragraphs above is false. The fact that you were in prison or jail does not guarantee that you will get Social Security benefits when you are released.

To qualify for disability benefits, you must have an actual physical or psychological impairment (problem) or disability. The Social Security Administration (SSA) determines if a person is eligible for Social Security benefits with the use of a five-step evaluation. The evaluation questions are asked in the following order:

  1. Have you worked after the date you claim to have become disabled? Most applicants have not been working since becoming disabled. Some people try to work while disabled, but they are only able to make a small amount of money. As a result, the SSA may still find you eligible for benefits as long as you did not earn too much money during the years you claim to have been disabled. Your local SSA office can tell you what the amount is for each year.

  2. Is your condition a “severe impairment?” The SSA definition of a “severe impairment” is one that interferes with your basic work-related activities that will last 12 months or more or is expected to result in death. Your condition must be severe for you to be considered disabled.

  3. Does your condition meet or equal one or more of the conditions found in the “Listing of Impairments”? The SSA has a list of conditions that weaken or disable, which it considers “disabling.” For each condition, the SSA has identified the type of medical evidence that must exist for you to be found disabled as a result of that condition. See Listing of Impairments (from Social Security Online). If your condition is on this list, you will be considered to be disabled. Even if your condition is not on the list, however, the SSA may determine that it is equal to an impairment that is on the list.

  4. Are you still able to do the work you did before you had your current condition? If your condition is found to be “severe,” but is not on the list of debilitating conditions and is not equal to one on the list, it must at least stop you from being able to do your job.

  5. Are you able to do any other type of work? You must show that you cannot do the work you did in the past and cannot adjust to other work.

Remember that, even if the SSA denies you benefits at first, you may appeal the decision.

To find out if you are eligible for Social Security benefits, you should contact your local Social Security office for more information. See Local Office Search (from Social Security Online) to find your nearest office.

Contact Legal Services of New Jersey's Prisoner Reentry Project

You may also contact Legal Services of New Jersey's Prisoner Reentry Project (PREP) by calling LSNJ-LAW™, our statewide, toll-free legal hotline, at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529), Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. PREP provides assistance in civil matters to eligible inmates and those with criminal records to help their successful transition back into society.

This article is from the May 2010 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.

This information last reviewed 5/18/10.


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Low-income New Jerseyans can get free legal help by phone: call our toll-free hotline at 1-888-LSNJ-LAW (1-888-576-5529), Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Outside of New Jersey, please call 732-572-9100 and ask to be transferred to the hotline.