AUBURN — County jail administrators said this week that they continue to confiscate Electronic Benefit Transfer cards from inmates during intake when the card is not in the name of the person who has it.
The cards, used for the distribution of state and federal welfare benefits, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, are issued by the state and electronically loaded with funds.
According to Androscoggin County’s jail administrator Capt. Jeffrey Chute, corrections officers are sending between three and four EBT cards back to the state Department of Health and Human Services each week.
Chute said investigators at DHHS then decide whether to pursue welfare fraud charges, depending on whether the individual with the card was authorized to use it.
“If the name does not match, we turn them over to DHHS and let them sort it out,” Chute said. He said jail corrections officers who process inmates during the intake procedure regularly secure personal property for inmates and return it to them upon their release.
Inmates who are serving a sentence of more than 30 days at the jail also have any state and federal welfare benefits they are receiving put on hold while they are in the care of the county. The jails receive some financial incentive for notifying the federal government to suspend those benefits. Chute said Androscoggin County jail receives about $10,000 a year from the federal government, which helps cover some of the jail’s administrative costs.
From November 2013 to April 2014, of the roughly 1,700 bookings at the jail 143 individuals had EBT cards on them, according to a Sun Journal report. Of those, 36 were issued in someone else’s name.
David Sorensen, a spokesman for DHHS, said if fraud is suspected in cases where EBT cards are taken from inmates, those cases are referred to the local District Attorney for possible prosecution.
Sorensen said Androscoggin County recovers, on average, one EBT card per day that’s in the name of somebody other than the inmate who is holding it.
Chute said Androscoggin County also had the ATM in the jail lobby modified so an EBT card cannot be used to withdraw cash for bail money, which was a common practice.
While TANF program benefits can be withdrawn in cash, SNAP benefits cannot, but according law enforcement officers, including federal prosecutors and agents with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, the cards are frequently sold to acquire cash for drugs or traded directly along with their Personal Identification Numbers for drugs.
Sorensen said under federal law any holder of an EBT card that also has the PIN for that card is considered an authorized user. He said DHHS is in the process of seeking a waiver for Maine that would require card holders to specifically name between two and three other authorized users for their cards in an attempt to prevent trading of cards and PINs for drugs.
Sorensen said DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew has written a letter to Maine’s U.S. Congressional delegation urging them to support a federal law change that would make EBT card use more secure.
“The people of Maine are concerned about the proliferation of welfare benefits and the seeming lack of reasonable limits on their use,” Mayhew wrote in the letter. “We have taken major steps toward reforming Maine’s welfare system where possible, but there is a limit to what we can do without action from the federal government.”
In Oxford County, jail administrator Capt. Ed Quinn, said his corrections officers also collected EBT cards when they are not in the name of the person who has the card in their possession. Quinn said the frequency of cards turning up at his jail is lower than what’s being observed in some of Maine’s more populated counties and noted they only confiscate about eight cards a year.
Quinn also said that in some cases the inmate is an authorized user of somebody else’s EBT card, but he also said the jail leaves it up to DHHS to make that determination and return the cards when appropriate.
Advocates for the poor have said the increasing focus on the misuse of EBT cards by a small percentage of welfare recipients tends to “stigmatize the poor” as criminals or drug abusers.
But DHHS officials, including Sorensen, said tighter restrictions and more accountability in the system as part of overall welfare reform measures aren’t meant to target the poor but target poorly designed systems that are ripe for fraud and have been abused for decades.