The letter startled Nick Tomasic. It was from a prison inmate; other fellow prisoners, assigned to computerize records, had taken a Social Security number from an accident report and tried to sell it.
Tomasic is the district attorney for Wyandotte County. It was his number.
As far as Tomasic knows, his Social Security number hasn’t been used to try to gain access to confidential information; corrections officials deny that inmates ever had access to it.
But what if convicts tried to use their access to information to harm witnesses or victims?
Twenty-nine states, including California, and the federal government save money by having prisoners “key in” data for computers; Tomasic wonders whether a tragedy lurks there, waiting to happen.
Authorities dismiss his concerns. Leonard Black, immediate past president of the National Correctional Industries Assn. in Belle Mead, N.J., said Tomasic’s experience was “an isolated instance.”
“In the 10 to 12 years we’ve had these programs, we haven’t had any problems with the information being abused,” Black said.
Although the data entry programs vary from state to state, the information the inmates process ranges from accident reports to higher education records.
In Missouri, inmates at the Central Missouri Correctional Center near Jefferson City enter information for the state Department of Social Services.
In Kansas, medium-security inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility type in information on traffic accidents from around the state. The accident reports contain names, addresses and license plate numbers of people involved.
A Kansan’s Social Security number also will be on the report if that person chooses it to be used as a driver’s license number.
Tomasic said there’s a possibility prisoners could, for example, learn where a witness lived from the reports or find out the phone number of a victim. Witnesses and victims could be harassed--or worse--once a convict has such information in hand, he said.
And a detective for the Johnson City, Kan., sheriff’s office, Kent P. Willnauer, is investigating reports that an ex-con used Social Security numbers and other information to open fraudulent bank accounts. The data, Willnauer said, allegedly came from an inmate at Lansing.
“Someone said the state saves a lot of money having the prisoners (do the data entry),” Tomasic said. “But I told them that money should not be a concern when people’s safety is at risk.”
Jeri Costa, assistant director of education and training for the National Victims Center in Arlington, Va., agreed.
“We should be protecting individuals’ personal information and not just handing it to people who we know are prone to committing crimes,” Costa said.
“Once we give them personal information--names, addresses and telephone numbers--(the inmates) would have access to a variety of things. They could stalk someone or determine this is someone they would like to meet or maybe break into their home.”
But Kansas officials said Tomasic’s is the first complaint about the program.
“I think if there was a problem, then it would be best to identify the problem rather than say the whole program is no good,” said Mike Rees, chief counsel for the Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka.
Rees estimated that before the prison program started, the KDOT spent about $150,000 to do the work. The annual contract for the Lansing program amounts to about $68,400.
In a letter to a state senator, Gary Stotts, secretary of the Department of Corrections, insisted that “inmates did not have access to Mr. Tomasic’s Social Security number or credit card numbers as a result of making data entry from the accident report.”
Stotts also said the program is being “closely reviewed” and will likely be discontinued if officials find “any significant impropriety.”