Bay State prison officials are alerting inmates just before they are sprung on how to apply for welfare in a new pilot program that includes making the cons “aware of how to self-identify as disabled,” according to a department memo obtained by the Herald.

The Department of Correction policy is intended to ensure eligible inmates don’t face a gap in assistance after finishing their sentences, according to prisoner advocates. But it’s already riling a welfare benefits watchdog, who fears the program could open the door to unqualified applicants trying to get on the rolls.

“Look, if someone is truly disabled we want to get them the help they need. But we should not be encouraging people to find ways to qualify for Social Security Disability,” said state Rep. Shaunna O’Connell, a Taunton Republican. “What we should be doing is job training and education and encouraging people to get work when they’re released from prison.”

Entitled “SSI/SSDI Implementation” — a reference to Social Security Disability benefits — the undated memo states that a specialist is “responsible for ensuring all inmates are informed of the … benefits program” and that inmates must declare they are disabled to prison officials no sooner than 120 days before they’re scheduled to be released.

Once they do, officials then provide the applications to the inmate.

Officials must also ensure that inmates are “aware on how to self-identify as disabled,” the memo states. “This process may occur via a re-entry presentation, informational session, posters or re-entry case management.”

Christopher Fallon, a DOC spokesman, did not return repeated emails and calls questioning when the program started or in which facilities it’s operating. But he said in a statement that the goal of the policy is cut down on the inmates’ “risk for homelessness, drug addiction, and other circumstances that led them to commit crimes.”

“During re-entry planning, inmates are made aware of the benefits potentially available to them upon release,” Fallon said, “but whether and how to apply is entirely up to the inmate.”

DOC doesn’t determine whether they’re eligible, Fallon said, and officials help inmates during the process because they don’t have access to the internet.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, said the organization has pushed DOC in recent years to adopt federal Social Security Administration guidelines that allow for such pre-release arrangements and inmates to start the application process before their sentence is done.

Walker said DOC previously didn’t have an arrangement and that the policy described in the memo is part of what officials have called a pilot.

“This is a common-sense program to help disabled prisoners re-enter with no additional cost to taxpayers,” she said.

State Rep. Paul Heroux, an Attleboro Democrat who worked both for DOC and the Philadelphia Prison System, said the program is one re-entry experts have long pushed.

“It’s absolutely critical that the Department of Correction help assist inmates with anything they are allowed under the law,” he said in an email. “If someone is eligible for SSDI or SSI, that is something they should receive. It is completely independent of whether or not they did a crime because they already served a sentence for that crime.”

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