Tens of thousands of California prison inmates filed 35,000 fraudulent unemployment claims during the pandemic and received at least $140 million in benefits from the state, according to officials.
Some of the money went directly to inmates and some was sent to friends and relatives outside prison.
At least 158 of the claims – filed between March and August – were for 133 inmates on death row, including notorious serial killers. Those claims totaled $420,000.
"In my nearly four decades I have never seen fraud of this magnitude," said Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer.
Inmates and their contacts on the outside used fake Social Security numbers and names – some of them clearly jokes or offensive terms – to apply for the benefits. Because California does not have a system that cross references inmate data with unemployment claims, prisoners had an easier time gaming benefits applications for their gain.
Authorities were tipped off to the widespread scheme in September when large and numerous money orders began arriving for inmates. They soon began listening to inmates' phone calls and heard them bragging about the scheme.
"Quite frankly, the inmates are mocking us," said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert.
Prosecutors sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday requesting he intervene. In a statement, Newsom said he was immediately directing emergency services personnel – including Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services – to assemble a task force that would address the widespread fraud.