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The digital chain gang 

Give cons access to private info? Arkansas does.

If you're worried about identity theft, the last place you'd probably want your birth date, Social Security number, and name to wind up might be a prison. However, a new report by the Social Security Administration finds eight states, including Arkansas, in which prisoners have access to personal information through inmate work programs. The other states that allow inmates access to personal information are Alabama, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The Arkansas facility mentioned in the report is a digital imaging center located at the Wrightsville Unit. The center, part of the prison industries wing, scans documents from state and city governments and schools around the state.

The report, published in March by the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General, found that some states have taken precautions against identity theft such as curtailing inmates' access to writing materials that can be used to jot down information, making workers wear uniforms with no pockets, and preventing inmates from seeing names associated with Social Security numbers. Still, the report says, vulnerabilities remain.

“(I)ndividuals intent on criminal activity may attempt to circumvent these controls,” the report said. “For example, prisoners could memorize an SSN obtained through their job duties and use it to create a false identity.” The report cites a 2009 case in Kansas in which an inmate stole information while performing document imaging and microfilm services, and a 2006 case in Connecticut in which an inmate smuggled a file back to her cell. The report urges Social Security Administration officials in the eight states where inmates are still allowed to work with Social Security numbers to support legislation to end the practice.

Dina Tyler with the Arkansas Department of Correction said the Arkansas imaging facility employs 10 female inmates. She said they are overseen by prison industries staff members, but the area has no guard assigned full time. The inmates who work in the imaging center are closely watched, Tyler said, adding that the speed at which they work precludes them from secretly copying information.

“What they are doing is feeding documents into a scanner,” Tyler said. “It is done at a very fast pace. They don't have time to study those documents or write things down. When they leave that building after work, they are searched.” She said that there are no prohibitions on pens or other writing materials in the scanning area, but said that the after-work search would turn up any paper inmates might have on them. Tyler said it isn't possible that inmates might commit the information to memory and write it down later.

“They would have to memorize a social security number and a name and a birth date and all those things,” she said.

“Generally on these records you're not generally going to find all that. It's not like they're processing credit card applications. They're processing government records.”

Linda Foley, founder of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, Calif., however, believes that where there's a will, there's a way. Foley said that her group became aware of prisoner access to personal information in 2003, after learning of a Texas case in which an inmate worker copied a woman's information, then began stalking her when he got out of jail. Foley said that prisons have long been schools for criminals, and identity theft is high on the curriculum these days.

“If you are in jail for robbing a 7-11,” Foley said, “they are being told: ‘You idiot, you're in jail for robbing a 7-11 and you got away with what, $200 dollars? Here's how you really make money.'”

Foley said that the kind of criminal who is ready to graduate to the world of identity theft is generally smarter, with a better memory. Even if writing materials are forbidden in the work area, a prisoner could scratch it into their skin with a pin, she said, or simply memorize the information. “I don't put anything beyond these people. They still can memorize some of (the personal information). Even if it's just some that they remember before they go on break and they write them down quickly while they're on the break.”

Foley said that though some states have taken the step of screening out criminals who were convicted of identity theft, sex crimes or computer hacking, the “prison school” aspect of incarceration means the screen doesn't always work.

“I think it needs to be brought up to your legislators that this is not the wisest of ideas,” Foley said. “There is no profile of who may turn to identity theft. We have teen-agers, we have older people. It's not just hackers.”

Both the Governor's office and the Attorney General's Office referred our questions about the practice to the Department of Correction.

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