Above photo: President Trump’s name appears on the coronavirus economic assistance checks that went out earlier this year. Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images.
For months incarcerated people and their families heard conflicting messages about whether they were eligible to receive the pandemic stimulus payments provided by Congress as the Trump administration attempted to block prisoners from receiving their checks. Last week a federal judge slammed the administration with an order to provide the stimulus relief, and now advocates across the country are working to ensure low-income people caged in state and federal prisons can apply for the much-needed federal aid as deadlines loom.
“It’s important because prisoners and their families are among the most impoverished groups in America, if anyone needs the money it’s that group of people,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), a legal aid organization currently working to help low-income prisoners apply for stimulus checks, in an interview.
In the spring, Congress passed a coronavirus stimulus package that provided pandemic relief payments of up to $1,200 for individuals, plus $500 per child, and checks were sent automatically to people who file taxes. In April, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sent nearly 85,000 stimulus payments worth $100 million to incarcerated people before a Treasury Department audit flagged the payments and declared incarcerated people ineligible. The IRS reversed course, directing prison wardens to intercept automatic payments while denying payments to those who filed with the IRS in order to receive them.
Legal advocates filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners, arguing that the Trump administration’s attempt to deny stimulus payments to incarcerated people was arbitrary and illegal. Indeed, the stimulus package passed by Congress contains no language barring incarcerated people from receiving the pandemic relief. A federal judge in California agreed and ordered the Trump administration to stop withholding stimulus payments from incarcerated people and people recently released from prison. The plaintiffs estimate that over 1.4 million people were impacted by the administration’s attempt to block payments.
Last week, the court ordered the IRS to correct misinformation on its website, which originally and incorrectly stated that incarcerated people are not eligible for stimulus payments. Misinformation also made the rounds in the media. Prison officials in West Virginia, for example, told reporters in late April that prisoners developed a “scheme” designed to defraud the government by applying with the IRS to receive stimulus checks. However, it was the Treasury Department and the IRS that broke the law, according to the class action lawsuit and subsequent federal court ruling.
“People who are incarcerated, they are the very same people who are affected by COVID the most — Black people, Native and Latinx people, and [low-income] people are most in need of these funds, and for government to callously subvert law and take it from them, it was just an injustice that the plaintiffs and we could not let stand,” said Mona Tawatao of the Equal Justice Society, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in an interview.
In order to receive a stimulus payment, prisoners (and anyone else who has yet to receive a check) must either file taxes for 2018 or 2019, or file a simplified IRS 1040 form if they are not required to regularly file taxes because they are low-income. To accommodate incarcerated people, the court ordered the IRS to extend the deadline for mailing tax forms to the IRS to October 30 and the deadline for filing online until November 21. Prisoners who have filed with the IRS but were previously denied should receive their payments automatically. (More information on filing can be found here and here.)
The Trump administration initially moved to appeal the court’s ruling and order, but it remains unclear whether the IRS and Treasury Department will pursue the appeal. On Friday, the administration filed a motion with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging a section of the order requiring the IRS to notify incarcerated people of their right to file for a stimulus check by October 15, but the court rejected the motion and sent it back to the lower court, according to Tawatao.
An estimated 9 million people who are eligible for the stimulus have not yet received it, often because they do not make enough money to file taxes with the IRS. Many of these people are economically vulnerable, including veterans, the elderly, people who do not speak English and houseless people, along with incarcerated people.
People trapped in the clutches of the criminal legal system are overwhelmingly low-income. Nationally, about 60 percent of incarcerated people are people of color, and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted both by the COVID-19 pandemic and mass incarceration, according to an amicus brief filed in federal court by civil rights groups and advocates for the incarcerated. They argue that the Trump administration’s attempt to block stimulus payments threatened to intensify inequalities driven by systemic racism in the criminal legal system, as well as in health care and employment.
Two in three families with an incarcerated loved one had difficulty meeting basic needs, such as food and housing, before the pandemic, and the economic fallout of the pandemic has made a bad situation worse. As Truthout has reported, millions of families across the country are going hungry and struggling to pay rent and bills as Congress and the White House bicker over a second stimulus package.
Incarceration comes at a high price for families, and these costs overwhelmingly fall on women, according to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. On average, families pay $13,600 in court and legal fees, nearly a year’s salary for a worker who makes minimum wage and may not be required to file with the IRS. Phone calls to loved ones inside prisons can cost up to 21 cents per minute, plus fees. Prisoners who do work are paid substandard wages. According to the amicus brief:
Every day, low-income Black and Brown families of incarcerated people make life and death decisions about where to send money and resources. Should these precious dollars be used to buy food, pay for gas money, or pay rent? Or, should they be sent to a loved one in jail or prison to fund necessities, like safer food and hygiene products from commissary? The COVID-19 crisis makes these difficult choices more dire. Immediate action is needed to direct CARES Act funds to incarcerated people, to ensure that their loved ones will not have to make life-altering choices.
Across the country, activists are now rushing to get IRS forms to incarcerated people before the October 30 mail-in deadline. Prisons generally do not grant access to the internet, making online filing impossible. Mills said UPLC is raising money to send 35,000 IRS forms with instructions to every prisoner in Illinois, and the state corrections department has agreed to distribute them. Similar efforts are underway in a number of other states, including Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, West Virginia and Louisiana. In some cases, prison officials have agreed to distribute IRS forms and filing information to prisoners after coming under pressure from activists. Thousands of people have shared IRS filing information on social media.
“Presumably [the stimulus] will do exactly what it is supposed to do,” Mills said. “It will be spent either on commissary or through phone calls, and a lot of this money will end up in the hands of parents who are supporting their kids in prison, and people who are imprisoned and are themselves parents — that will provide for them as well.”