PITTSBURGH - They’re locked up behind bars and you are already paying for their food, lodging and medical care. Now, some prisoners are trying to collect even more of your tax dollars by illegally claiming unemployment benefits.
But tonight Target 11 Investigator Rick Earle has discovered there’s a new effort by the state to crack down on this type of jailhouse fraud.
At the Armstrong County jail just outside of Kittanning, a prison inmate collected nearly $11,000 in unemployment benefits while sitting in a jail cell. His father cashed the checks and then brought the money to his son at the jail.
“They are in jail for a reason -- the majority, you know -- and anything to make an extra buck, and they knew all along they couldn't get caught doing this,” said Deputy Warden Matt Roofner.
Target 11 uncovered how inmates at county jails across the state worked the system.
While behind bars they use a jailhouse computer to check in with the unemployment office, or in some cases have a relative do so for them. The unemployment office would then make a direct deposit into the person’s bank account. That money would then be withdrawn by a relative or friend and given to the inmate.
After discovering the fraud, the state made major changes to the system and tapped into a new computer system called the Pennsylvania Justice Network or J-NET.
It cross checks names of inmates with names of people eligible for unemployment benefits. In just the first years, the new system has stopped more than $50 million from going to inmates. $5 million of that money was detected before going to inmates at county jails in western Pennsylvania.
At the Allegheny County jail, since November when the new system went on line, the state has stopped nearly 400 inmates from getting those benefits.
State and federal prisons are already on the J-Net system.
State Representative Dom Costa of Morningside was unaware of the problem until we brought it to his attention. He now wants to know why it went undetected at county jails for so long and he’s concerned because 10 counties still are not linked into the J-NET system.
“So there could still be inmates there collecting unemployment benefits?” asked Target 11 Investigator Earle.
“Exactly, they could be sitting there as we are talking right now, collecting taxpayers’ money and sitting in a correctional institution,” said Costa, who told Target 11 that he is considering legislation that would now require every county to tie into the J-NET system.