How Prisons Are Blocking Incarcerated People’s Stimulus Checks

November 18, 2020

In September, when a federal judge ordered that people who are incarcerated could receive pandemic stimulus checks, activist groups rushed to inform the nation’s prisoners. Volunteers from Prison Abolition and Prison Support (PAPS) dashed off 3,000 letters containing informational packets and copies of IRS Form 1040, which many incarcerated people would need to fill out to receive their CARES check. Georgia Freedom Letters mailed 2,500 letters. The Southern Center for Human Rights informed its clients about the ruling and the steps they’d need to take to receive the money.

“We’ve heard from many people who said, ‘Thank you so much, I would have had no idea, and because you sent me this information, I was able to file for this money,’” Page Dukes, a communications associate for the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Filter. “They just were totally in the dark.”

The judge’s ruling hardly guaranteed that incarcerated people would actually receive the checks. Lack of access to computers as well as attempts by detention facility staff to impede the checks have all made it more difficult for incarcerated people to get their money. Meanwhile, incarcerated people often receive just cents per hour for their labor, even as necessities like phone calls, emails and commissary items are regularly priced above market value. 

After Congress passed the CARES Act in March, the IRS initially sent nearly 85,000 stimulus checks to prisoners. But in May, the IRS changed course, declaring that prisoners were ineligible for the money. The agency wrote on its website that “payment made to someone who is incarcerated should be returned to the IRS.” After a class-action lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the government to stop blocking the payments. 

Multiple prisoners’ rights advocates told Filter that many detention facilities have erected barriers that could prevent incarcerated people from receiving their stimulus checks. Though the IRS was ordered to send prisons information about the checks, facilities were not ordered to help incarcerated people receive them. Some prisoners still don’t appear to know about deadlines for submitting 1040s. And as activists rushed to mail tax forms and informational sheets to the incarcerated, some detention facilities have actively stymied attempts to inform people of their rights, by rejecting the letters and spreading false information.

One person was told blank tax forms weren’t allowed; another was told tax forms could only come from the IRS; another was told that third-party mail was prohibited.

“We have about 300 letters that prison officials bounced,” PAPS Executive Director Azzurra Crispino told Filter, noting that volunteers had sent around 3,000 letters in total. 

The reasons for rejecting the letters varied. One person was told blank tax forms weren’t allowed; another was told tax forms could only come from the IRS; another was told that third-party mail was prohibited. One prison turned back a letter addressed to one incarcerated person, yet PAPS received a 1040 from another person in the same facility, indicating that their mailing had been permitted.

“[They] won’t allow blank tax forms sent in,” wrote a woman incarcerated in Texas in a letter seen by Filter. She received a notice that her mail had been rejected without ever being told what had been sent or why someone had attempted to send it to her.

Prison mail rooms didn’t always inform incarcerated people of their letters’ contents, meaning the recipients didn’t know why advocates were reaching out. “I was advised that I am not permitted to receive blank tax forms unless I could produce a W-4 form,” wrote a person in Texas’ Eastham Unit. They had “assumed there was no correspondence accompanying and explaining the receipt of the blank tax forms, since such a letter would have been released to me,” though PAPS was sending informational sheets with the 1040s. 


Obstacles From Inside

Even when the 1040s were accepted by prisons, other obstacles might prohibit people from filing. In Georgia, the CEO of the National Incarceration Association wrote to the state’s corrections commissioner alleging “a concentrated effort to withhold these important tax forms and information from incarcerated people.” 

Staff at Georgia’s Pulaski State Prison, which houses over 1,200 women, had told prisoners that attempting to receive a CARES check would constitute fraud, Dukes said. 

Though prisoners nationwide are legally permitted to file online up until November 21, few have the means to do so. The court order required the IRS to send 1040s to detention facilities, but not until October 28. Paper forms had to be postmarked by November 4, leaving little time for those incarcerated to fill out the paperwork or address any issues that arose, even assuming prisons distributed the forms quickly.

“If you consider that most prisons don’t have computers with internet access, accessing a computer in prison is hard during normal times, given the number of people competing for access and lots of services in prison are shut down due to the pandemic, I think it’s safe to assume that for most people, paper forms were the only option,” Wanda Betram, the Communications Strategist at Prison Policy Institute, told Filter

“A lot of prisoners have no idea what their social security number is.”

To circumvent potential problems, the Uptown People’s Law Center arranged a deal with the Illinois Department of Corrections to deliver six-page packets, containing tax forms, IRS instructions and a cover sheet to every prisoner in the state’s corrections system. The deal ensured that each person in the Illinois system would receive necessary information while saving facilities the work of processing mail.

“We were doing a lot of work,” Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, told Filter. “It was sort of a, ‘We’re gonna make your life hell if you don’t do this, and we’re gonna make your life easier if you do this,’ so they did it.’”

The organization fundraised money to cover the costs of printing, delivering, picking up and mailing 1040s to state prisons across Illinois. Still, Illinois prisoners ran into roadblocks. 

“A lot of prisoners have no idea what their social security number is,” Mills said. “You and I use it all the time, but if you’ve been in prison for 10 years, you’ve never used your social security number for anything. And you don’t obviously have a social security card with you to look at it. So a lot of them were at a loss there.” Mills noted that of the approximately 30,000 forms distributed, he only received 10,000 to 12,000 back.

“We got a bunch of questions from staff as to what they should do,” Mills said. “There is an IRS form to request that information, but obviously wasn’t gonna happen within the deadline. So, you know, I think there were a lot of people, probably, who couldn’t fill out the forms who theoretically would’ve been eligible.” 

(The IRS did not respond to Filter‘s requests for comment, including on whether it took a stance on third parties filing tax 1040s. The Bureau of Prisons, Georgia Department of Corrections, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also did not respond by publication time.) 

Even when the checks do arrive, prisoners may only receive a portion of the payment.

While some prisoners used contraband phones to file online, others asked family members or friends to file their tax forms online. Others asked for the checks to be mailed to a residential address rather than the prison. In Ohio, people who sent checks to residential addresses had received their checks already, while prisoners still had not, according to Crispino. She’d heard that the payments had arrived at facilities but were being withheld.

Even when the checks do arrive, prisoners may only receive a portion of the payment.

In Georgia, the general council of the GDC told the Southern Center for Human Rights that the checks would be deposited into prisoners’ accounts, but existing dues would be subtracted. People incarcerated in Georgia aren’t paid for their labor, mail costs and medical expenses can leave them with an unpaid balance. Those who have been in the system, despite their years of labor, may owe the state money. 

“For some people, who have never had any money on their books, if, barring all these other obstacles, they do receive the check, then a large chunk might be taken out by the department. But that’s actually a best-case scenario, because that means the money ended up on their books,” Dukes said.



Photograph via Commons

Daniel Moritz-Rabson

Daniel is a freelance reporter whose work has been published in outlets including Fortune, The Appeal and Gothamist. He will FOIA documents related to criminal justice if you ask nicely. He lives in Brooklyn.

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