Passing Go - Incarceration and Income Assistance

By: 

Kim Roberts, Income Assistance Advocate

When a person goes to jail, they may lose their income, their apartment, and their belongings; when they are released, they may walk out the door with no money, no job, and nowhere to live. Although individuals who are involved with the correctional system represent only a small portion of our clients here at TAPS, we have seen people who have just been released from jail face significant barriers trying to access income assistance benefits (IA) through the Ministry of Social Development (MSD).
 
It is important to note that individuals who are involved with the federal correctional system (those serving sentences of two years or longer) are covered by Correctional Service of Canada. On southern Vancouver Island, the federal prison is William Head Institution. Those in pro­vincial jails, on the other hand, are not covered federally and have to seek income assistance through MSD if they don’t have another source of income when they are released. This article addresses the circumstances of those entering or leaving provincial jails only. On southern Van­couver Island the provincial jail is called the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, also known as Wilkinson Road jail.
 
I am on IA. Does incarceration affect my IA eligibility?
Yes. You are ineligible to receive income assistance when you are incarcerated.
 
How does MSD know that I am incarcerated?
MSD has an investigative officer who scans the court lists looking for names of people who are on income assistance. RCMP and cor­rectional officers may also inform MSD that you are incarcerated. However, if you are receiving income through MSD, you are ultimately responsible for letting the ministry know when you are in jail, whether you are in jail for a few days, a couple of weeks, several months or longer. If MSD finds out that you have been in jail and did not notify them, and you con­tinue to receive benefits, you will be issued an overpayment notice and will be required to pay the money back to the ministry
 
What happens to my income as­sistance file if I am incarcerated?
When the ministry learns that you are in jail, your file will be flagged. The ministry has informed us that, if you are in jail between two IA cheque issue dates, meaning you are at home for the cheque issue date in April, say, and you return your stub to the ministry, and then you are in jail for a few days or a couple of weeks, and then you are released and back home for the next cheque issue date in May, there will be no effect on your in­come assistance file and you will receive your cheques as usual.
 
If your time in jail covers a cheque issue date, and you are consequently not able to return your stub to the ministry, you will not receive a cheque for the following month. The ministry will keep your file open over two cheque issue dates while you are incarcerated, although you will receive no money. When you leave jail, let the ministry know that you are out of jail, and they should reactivate your file. MSD will provide you with the shelter amount for the rest of the month in which you are released if you have a confirmed address, but any support amount you receive will be pro-rated. If you encounter any difficulties having your file reactivated, get in touch with TAPS.
 
If the time you are in jail covers more than two cheque issue dates, the ministry will close your file. If you need income assistance when you leave jail, you will have to re-apply. There is one exception to this: if the ministry has flagged your file as “homeless,” they will keep your file open for a year.
 
One other thing: the ministry has informed us that, if you received your IA cheque for May, for example, and then you go to jail on, say, May 15th, they will not ask you to repay half of the amount you received for May.
 
Can I apply for IA from jail?
At Vancouver Island Regional Cor­rectional Centre (on Wilkinson Road) you can arrange to have your eligibility appointment with an MSD worker take place over the telephone if you are staying at the centre for more than 30 days. The onus is on you to let the staff at the centre know that you will need to have an income assistance intake appointment set up.
 
One of the biggest obstacles income assistance applicants face is the waiting time from when they initiate the income assistance application process to when they receive an appointment date with MSD to determine their eligibility. Currently, this waiting period is around six weeks. Keep this in mind, and start your re-application process early.
 
A person applying for IA must do a five-week work search before they are eligible to receive assistance, unless they are excused for medical reasons.  If you are not excused from the job search, you will have to do the five-week search after you leave jail and you will not receive an IA cheque until you have completed the search.
 
If you have Person With a Disability designation (PWD) or are otherwise excused from a work search, and you have applied or re-applied to MSD, have gone through the intake process, and are deemed eligible for IA before you leave jail, a cheque will be mailed to the jail and given to you upon your release.
 
What happens if I get out of jail and have no money and then have to do the five-week work search before I can receive IA?
If you have been released from jail and have to wait an extensive amount of time until your IA eligi­bility appointment, you may qualify through MSD for an immediate needs assessment if you are without money for housing, food, or treatment of a medical need. If you qualify for an immediate needs assessment, you are placed on a cancellation list for IA eligibility appointments. However, we at TAPS find that appointments don’t open up very often, even for those on the cancellation list. If you need any help with this, get in touch with TAPS.
 
How does incarceration affect my PWD status?
If you have PWD designation and go to jail, you will not lose your PWD designation, even if you are not receiving any money from MSD while you are in jail and even if MSD closes your file. As you come near to your release date, be sure to go through the income assistance intake process. As soon as you become eligible for IA, your PWD status should be reactivated.
 
PWD Application
PWD is the highest designation in the provincial income assistance system and if an applicant meets the legislative criteria, they are entitled to $906 per month and enhanced medical benefits. At TAPS we see previous inmates without access to a medical practitioner in Victoria who can complete this 23-page application form; not all medical practitioners are willing to fill out the form for patients they don’t have a history with. Therefore, we advise you to get a referral to a doctor from jail if at all possible.
 
Reintegration into the community can be a chaotic and overwhelming process for people leaving jail, without the additional stress of trying to secure essential funds for shelter and living expenses. If you go to jail and encounter any difficulties with accessing income assistance, please get in touch with an income assistance advocate at TAPS at 250-361-3521.