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Legal Reentry Resources

Social Security

Social Security is a federal benefits program that helps retired people, workers who become disabled, and their dependents. Workers pay social security taxes, and the federal government uses that money to give cash benefits to people who are eligible for Social Security benefits.

There are four ways to qualify for federal Social Security benefits:
  1. If you are retired (must be at least 62 years old and have at least 10 Social Security “credits”)
  2. If you are disabled
  3. If you are the spouse or dependent of an eligible person
  4. If you are the survivor of an eligible person
What are Social Security credits?

For each year you work and pay Social Security taxes, you earn “credits” from the Social Security program. A worker can earn up to 4 credits per year, depending on how much money you earned. Unfortunately, you cannot earn tax credits while incarcerated. To receive retirement benefits, you must have 40 credits—which means you must have worked and paid taxes for at least 10 years or more.

You can check the number of credits you have by calling the Social Security Administration (SSA) at 1-800-772-1213, or by using the Online Retirement Estimator on the website at www.ssa.gov.

When should I apply for Social Security Retirement benefits?

You can apply as soon as you are 62 years old, but the full retirement age is higher depending on what year you were born. If you apply before the full retirement age (between 66 and 67), the amount of benefits you receive will be reduced.

Will incarceration affect my eligibility for benefits?

Maybe, but only temporarily in most cases. If you are confined or incarcerated continuously for more than 30 days, the SSA will suspend your benefits for all the months you were incarcerated. For example, if you are incarcerated from June 29th to August 1st, your benefits are suspended for June, July, and August because you would be incarcerated during each of those months and for a period of more than 30 days. However, dependents and spouses will continue to receive payments, if they were already getting benefits for your Social Security.

The SSA will consider you “confined” or incarcerated if you are:

  • Incarcerated in a prison or jail
  • Residing in a halfway house run by your state’s department of corrections
  • Confined in an institution in connection with a criminal case because you were found “guilty” but insane, “not guilty” due to insanity or mental illness, or “incompetent to stand trial”

Once you apply and qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you will remain enrolled in the program no matter how long you are incarcerated. Your benefits may be temporarily suspended during your incarceration or confinement, but they will not be permanently ended. See the following website for more information: https://www.ssa.gov/reentry/benefits.htm.

How do I restart my benefits after incarceration?
Before release:

If your facility has a pre-release agreement

  • Notify your correctional counselor or another staff member that you want to restart your benefits after incarceration. You or the facility’s representative can contact the SSA as much as 90 days before your scheduled release date, depending on the agreement.

If your facility does not have a pre-release agreement

  • Call 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and tell SSA that you were receiving benefits before you were incarcerated and you want to restart your benefits when you are released. A representative will make a pre-release appointment at your local SSA office, and give you instructions on what to do. Be prepared to provide your social security number, and bring official release documents to your appointment.
  • If Social Security’s automated phone system doesn’t accept your call, you can appoint a family member, friend, attorney, or social worker as your Authorized Representative. Use form SSA-1696 which can be found at: https://www.ssa.gov/forms/.
After release:

Call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to tell them you were released from prison and want to restart your retirement benefits. An SSA representative will give you instructions, and set up an appointment for you. Be prepared to provide your social security number and bring your official release documents to your appointment.

How do I apply for Social Security retirement benefits for the first time?

You can apply:

  • Online at https://www.ssa.gov/retire/
  • Over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213.
  • When you call, an SSA representative will set up a phone appointment for you.
  • In person at a local Social Security office.

Find your local SSA office by calling the number listed above, or online at https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp. Once you have found your local office, call the office to make an appointment.

Social Security Disability (SSD)

If you are disabled, you may be eligible to receive Social Security Disability benefits. To be eligible, you must:

  • Meet the criteria for disability and
  • Be unable to work and
  • Have paid taxes in approximately 5 of 10 years prior to becoming unable to work full time due to your disability.
How do I know if I meet the criteria for disability?

You may meet the criteria for disability if:

  • You have a severe physical or mental impairment (I.e. your impairment prevents you from doing basic work activities such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, and remembering) and
  • Because of your impairment, you are unable to do the same work you did in the past or another type of full-time work and
  • Your impairment will probably last at least 12 months or your impairment will cause your death.
How do I apply for SSD for the first time?

You can apply:

  • Online at https://www.ssa.gov/retire/
  • Over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213.
    • When you call, an SSA representative will set up a phone appointment for you.
  • In person at a local Social Security office.
    • Find your local SSA office by calling the number listed above, or online at https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp
    • Once you have found your local office, call the office to make an appointment.

It’s a good idea to apply for benefits as soon as you become disabled, as the application process can take up to 5 months. Additionally, many first time applications are denied, at which point you will have 60 days to appeal the decision.

Will incarceration affect my eligibility?

Maybe, but only temporarily in most cases. If you are confined or incarcerated continuously for more than 30 days, the SSA will suspend your benefits for all the months you were incarcerated. For example, if you are incarcerated from June 29th to August 1st, your benefits are suspended for June, July, and August because you would be incarcerated during each of those months and for a period of more than 30 days. However, dependents and spouses will continue to receive payments, if they were already getting benefits for your Social Security.

The SSA will consider you “confined” or incarcerated if you are:

  • Incarcerated in a prison or jail;
  • Residing in a halfway house run by your state’s department of corrections;
  • Confined in an institution in connection with a criminal case because you were found “guilty” but insane, “not guilty” due to insanity or mental illness, or “incompetent to stand trial.”

Once you apply and qualify for Social Security Disability benefits, you will remain enrolled in the program no matter how long you are incarcerated. Your benefits may be temporarily suspended during your incarceration or confinement, but they will not be permanently ended. See the following website for more information: https://www.ssa.gov/reentry/benefits.htm.

How do I restart my SSD benefits after incarceration?
Before release:

If your facility has a pre-release agreement:

  • Notify your correctional counselor or another staff member that you want to restart your benefits after incarceration. You or the facility’s representative can contact the SSA as much as 90 days before your scheduled release date, depending on the agreement.

If your facility does not have a pre-release agreement:

  • Call 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and tell SSA that you were receiving benefits before you were incarcerated and you want to restart your benefits when you are released. A representative will make a pre-release appointment at your local SSA office, and give you instructions on what to do. Be prepared to provide your social security number, and bring official release documents to your appointment.
  • If Social Security’s automated phone system doesn’t accept your call, you can appoint a family member, friend, attorney, or social worker as your Authorized Representative. Use form SSA-1696 which can be found at: https://www.ssa.gov/forms/.
After release:

Call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to tell them you were released from prison and want to restart your SSD benefits. An SSA representative will give you instructions, and set up an appointment for you. Be prepared to provide your social security number and bring your official release documents to your appointment.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

If you are disabled, and you make below a certain income, you may be eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income benefits. To be eligible, you must:

  • Be at least 65, or blind, or meet the criteria for disability and
  • Meet the criteria for low-income and
  • Meet the criteria for low-asset
How do I meet the criteria for disability?

You may meet the criteria for disability if:

  • You have a severe physical or mental impairment (i.e. your impairment prevents you from doing basic work activities such as lifting, standing, walking, sitting, and remembering) and
  • Because of your impairment, you are unable to do the same work you did in the past or another type of full-time work and
  • Your impairment will probably last at least 12 months or your impairment will cause your death.
How do I meet the criteria for low-income and low-asset?

To qualify as low-income, you must have very little or no income. The SSA’s income limit is different depending on where you live, and may change from year to year.

To qualify as low-asset, the value of the things you own (including  real estate, bank accounts, cash, stocks and bonds) must be less than $2,000 for a single person and $3,000 for a married couple. The SSA will not count everything you own, when deciding if you qualify as low-asset. For example, the SSA will not count the value of the home you live in, or your car.

How do I apply for SSI?

You can apply for SSI over the phone or in person:

  • Apply over the phone by calling 1-800-772-1213.
    • When you call, an SSA representative will set up a phone appointment for you.
  • Apply in person at a local Social Security office.
    • Find your local SSA office by calling the number listed above, or online at https://secure.ssa.gov/ICON/main.jsp
    • Once you have found your local office, call the office to make an appointment.

If you’re applying for SSI because you are disabled, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as you become disabled. The application process can take up to 5 months.

Will incarceration affect my eligibility for SSI benefits?

Maybe, but only temporarily in some cases. If you are confined or incarcerated continuously for more than 30 days but less than 12 months, the SSA will suspend your benefits for all the months you were incarcerated. For example, if you are incarcerated from June 29th to August 1st, your benefits are suspended for June, July, and August because you would be incarcerated during each of those months and for a period of more than 30 days. However, dependents and spouses will continue to receive payments, if they were already getting benefits for your Social Security.

If you are incarcerated or confined continuously for more than 12 months, the SSA requires you to submit a new application for SSI upon your release.

The SSA will consider you “confined” or incarcerated if you are:

  • Incarcerated in a prison or jail;
  • Residing in a halfway house run by your state’s department of corrections;
  • Confined in an institution in connection with a criminal case because you were found “guilty” but insane, “not guilty” due to insanity or mental illness, or “incompetent to stand trial.”
How do I restart my SSI benefits after incarceration?
Before release:

If your facility has a pre-release agreement:

  • Notify your correctional counselor or another staff member that you want to restart your benefits after incarceration. You or the facility’s representative can contact the SSA as much as 90 days before your scheduled release date, depending on the agreement.

If your facility does not have a pre-release agreement:

  • Call 1-800-772-1213 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and tell SSA that you were receiving benefits before you were incarcerated and you want to restart your benefits when you are released. A representative will make a pre-release appointment at your local SSA office, and give you instructions on what to do. Be prepared to provide your social security number, and bring official release documents to your appointment.
  • If Social Security’s automated phone system doesn’t accept your call, you can appoint a family member, friend, attorney, or social worker as your Authorized Representative. Use form SSA-1696 which can be found at: https://www.ssa.gov/forms/.
After release:

Call Social Security at 1-800-772-1213 to tell them you were released from prison and want to restart your SSD benefits. An SSA representative will give you instructions, and set up an appointment for you. Be prepared to provide your social security number and bring your official release documents to your appointment.

If you were incarcerated continuously for 12 months or longer and your benefits were terminated, you will need to file a new application. See “How do I apply for SSI” above.

Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC)

Contact Us

  • 51

    Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC) is located in Wood Hall on the Law Campus.

    Professor Aliza Kaplan
    Director
    akaplan@lclark.edu
    503-768-6721

    • Criminal Justice Reform Clinic (CJRC) Lewis & Clark Law School 10015 S.W. Terwilliger BoulevardMSC 51 Portland OR 97219