I usually meet them at work as they toil alongside me, lifting fifty-pound bales of carrots.
“Yo, my disability check is late,” they say as they stack thirty-six pound boxes of frozen zucchini.
“You can’t collect that in here,” I explain to them.
“Yeah, ma, I’m disabled,” they retort as they balance forty pounds of margarine on a sheet pan.
“No, they’ve cut you off. You’re not collecting anything while you’re in here. I know. I used to represent people in front of Social Security.”
“Yes,” I insist.
And on it goes.
Because many women here are recidivists, they have not only been in prison before, but they’ve also left prison before which means that someone, as they were headed towards discharge, pushed them to apply for SSI benefits. They think that those checks are the same as SSDI, so they call them “disability.” One needs to have some disability to collect SSI, too, but it’s mostly a welfare program, which means they shouldn’t be collecting it while they’re in prison.
It would almost be fraud to able-bodied women to collect SSI payments but Supplemental Security Income has nothing to do with someone’s inability to work in my opinion. SSI checks are essentially a bribe – albeit not a worthwhile one – from the government to certain people to keep them out of the workforce. That’s why so many released prisoners collect it: no one wants them around so the government steps in to protect a bunch of businesses by throwing 900 bucks a month to the rotten apples.
The inmates sense this truth even if they don’t accept it outright. Some prisoner (who I assumed was male because no other female prisoner besides me would have the gumption to do anything about collective social problems) typed instructions on collecting SSI.
“Go to your local SOCIAL SECURITY office and tell them that you’re DISABLED because you’ve been INCARCERATED and it made you DEPRESSED so you can’t WORK. You are entitled to 900 (NINE HUNDRED) dollars in EMERGENCY DISABILITY CASH IMMEDIATELY when you get out of PRISON,” the flyer read.
“Is this true?” they run up and ask me, flipping the typed instructions.
“No,” I burst their bubbles each time, even though they’re visibly nervous about making a living as felons who lost years of productivity to the penal code. Maybe I should be more comforting but sometimes they seem to want a life sentence of uselessness a little too much.
I understand how they feel; they hope something will offset the time they will spend looking for a job because felony convictions are disabilities. Even though they’re mentally and physically capable, everyone in the system goads them into applying for SSI as a safety net. Released offenders so overuse Social Security that the entitlement program for legitimately injured or ill people has become a re-entry strategy. But Social Security was never designed to be a failsafe when you’re a personal failure. When you fail, you’re supposed to rehabilitate yourself – with help, of course – not concede that you can’t do anything, especially when you can.
I’m probably more pissed about the Social Security thing because doctors in the past suggested I should apply for it.
“It’s free money. Why don’t you just apply?” Dr. Fivel asked me.
“Because I’m not disabled,” I answered him. “And let’s not even get into the disturbing fact that an M.D. thinks there’s something like ‘free money.’ You people think anyone with a diagnosis – however erroneous it is – should find a silver – or is it nickel? – lining in the illnesses you press on them should squeeze some ‘free money’ out of the government. Of course, this comes from the assholes who invented the 50 minute hour. Maybe you need the remaining ten minutes to bone up on macroeconomics.”
I see how I did little to improve shrinks’ vision of me. But why would someone who has a diagnosis – or any problem – necessarily be disabled? Isn’t there something I can do? Of course, there is. It’s just that no one wants me to do it. At least not around them.
That’s my biggest problem with pushing prisoners onto Social Security. It tells them that there’s something inherently wrong with them that handicaps their future success rather just admitting that something they did was wrong and they can reform themselves. Not to mention that it excuses every form of discrimination used against people with criminal records when they look for employment. FDR didn’t sign the landmark legislation so people could continue to be assholes to us even after we leave prison. Like we corrupt so much else, offenders corrupt the goal of Social Security with applications for assistance we shouldn’t need because we can’t absorb ourselves back into society. And on it goes.
Even one of the unit social workers approached me and asked me about the typed flyer.
“They can apply for SSI for a diagnosis of depression, but it will take months to start. It can’t help them when they hit the streets. They’ll need help from someone else in the meantime if they can’t get jobs.” I hate having to instruct people with more power than I have.
“You mean SSDI and SSI aren’t the same thing?” she asked me.
“No, SSDI is for people who paid into the system. Unfortunately, these women haven’t been able to do that.”
“And they won’t be able to, either,” she conceded.
From the Los Angeles Times: On Social Security’s 80th Birthday, A Dangerous Leadership Vacuum
The United States hasn’t had a commissioner for our Social Security Administration since 2013.