Even as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through America’s jails and prisons, the federal government moved to further punish the imprisoned by denying them access to economic stimulus funds — money that inmates and their families desperately need.
Fortunately, a California federal district judge has intervened, ruling last week that the Internal Revenue Service must send stimulus payments of up to $1,200 to the 1.5 million to 2 million state and federal inmates who are eligible for the relief.
For incarcerated people who rely on employment behind bars that pays a few cents an hour — high-risk jobs many of them have been forced to do during the pandemic — this money could serve as a lifeline. Incarcerated people are among those most endangered and harmed by COVID-19. They are eligible for stimulus money and it is rightfully theirs to have.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, was designed to help struggling Americans as their livelihoods were ravaged by the public health crisis. The legislation Congress passed authorized payments of up to $1,200 per person during the pandemic. The $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue package, signed into law by President Donald Trump, did not exclude jail or prison inmates from receiving the aid.
Folks in prison need money, too. During a pandemic there is even more of a demand for soap and extra hygiene products, which come with a hefty price tag from the commissary.
But the stimulus money also can help relatives on the outside who have struggled financially. Family members of those in prison often send inmates money for food and other basics. They also can spend enormous amounts on phone calls trying to stay in touch.
As stimulus funds started flowing to Americans, the IRS paid $100 million to nearly 85,000 inmates, according to a June 30 report by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. With no explanation, the Trump administration then halted payments and demanded that correctional facilities seize checks that had already been issued. Spouses of inmates also were informed they would need to return any portion of stimulus funds intended for their imprisoned loved ones.
The decision to withhold and take back from inmates and their families what was rightly theirs wasn't merely punitive. It was vindictive.
Judge ruled inmates should get funds
A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated individuals led to Judge Phyllis Hamilton's Oct. 14 ruling that inmates are entitled to stimulus funds. Hamilton gave inmates until Nov. 4 to claim their money.
"Incarcerated people and their families are primarily low-income and come disproportionately from minority communities that have endured long histories of discrimination at the hands of the government authority," the initial complaint read. "These communities are among the hardest hit by the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19."
Yaman Salahi, a partner with San Francisco-based Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs and class-action members, called Hamilton's order a "huge victory for inmates and their families."
"If you just take a look at the number of people who are incarcerated in this country as a result of mass incarceration over the past several decades, we have over 2 million people sitting in prison across the United States," Salahi told me this week. "That opens up a tremendous amount of economic assistance to these individuals and their families.”
Inmates struggle to claim money
Inmates, however, already have run into obstacles as they try to navigate the stimulus application process.
Some don't have access to computers to file required paperwork. Hamilton was clear in her ruling: people in custody should be permitted to receive the forms and return them by the deadline. She took the extra step of requiring the IRS to mail forms and a legal notice to every prison in America explaining inmates' rights and instructions for prison administrators to follow.
"We’ve had reports all over the country of correctional officers or prison administrators blocking access to these forms," Salahi said. "So when people mail copies to their (incarcerated) family members, they are not allowing those to be delivered to the person in their custody. And in some of the egregious cases that we’ve heard about, they are threatening them with sanctions like solitary confinement, discipline or some other punishment for having these forms in their possession or trying to fill them out and deliver them to the IRS.”
Of course, many people will argue that anyone convicted of a crime and serving time, especially violent offenders, don't deserve a check from the government. But that's a short-sighted, emotional argument.
Many prison inmates do have children, spouses or aging parents who need help to pay the rent or buy food. And for those inmates who soon will be released, the stimulus money will provide the opportunity for a fresh start.
"The funds would be a godsend," said Kelsey Kauffman, an advocate for prisoner's rights and the emeritus director of the Higher Education Program at the Indiana Women's Prison. "Most of them face absurd levels of debt piled on them by unthinking legislators and courts...owing hundreds every month in court fees, library fees, drug fees, anger management fees, child support, etc.
"If they miss a payment, back to prison they go," Kauffman said. "No, $1,200 won't cover too many months, but it can give them a bit of breathing room when they first re-enter and/or could help them get their driver's license back so that they can get to and from a job."
Prison is supposed to encourage rehabilitation. Treating inmates, or their cash-strapped families, like they are invisible and undeserving is unacceptable. Their lives have been affected — and sometimes taken — because of the pandemic. It's time to help them get their money.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why prison inmates should get COVID-19 stimulus funds