Judge allows prisoners to pursue stimulus checks

IRS had blocked inmates from receiving the funds

A RULING by a California judge is allowing those in prison to apply for government stimulus checks, overturning a decision by the Internal Revenue Service that such payments are not allowed.

Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in late September that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act did not bar inmates from receiving the stimulus checks so the payments, which went out to about 85,000 prisoners earlier this year before being halted, could resume. The original CARES Act language, she said, never disallowed prisoners from receiving the funds solely based on their incarcerated status.

Hamilton also ordered a halt to efforts by the Treasury Department to recover roughly $100 million that had already been paid out and she ordered the IRS to mail notices to prisoners who are eligible.

Hamilton additionally ordered the IRS to update its website to reflect her decision. On Oct. 7, she ordered the IRS to apply an extension to the filing deadline for paper claims to Oct. 30. On Thursday, the postmark deadline for mailed claims was extended to Nov 4, 2020.

The IRS, on its website, said the government is appealing and requesting a stay of the injunction.

The decision has set off a scramble among the nearly 13,000 state and county inmates in Massachusetts (1.5 million nationwide) to claim their checks, which can rise as high as $1,200 for individuals making less than $99,000 a year and $2,400 for taxpayers who file a joint tax return.

Rafael Martinez, a prisoner at MCI-Norfolk, said the check would help defray the cost of phone calls and food products he purchases. He said most of the money will go to his sister and grandmother. “Now they won’t have to send me money for basic food and hygiene,” he said in an email.

Martinez, 29, said that as a member of the African American Coalition Committee’s (AACC) at the prison, he’s been helping juveniles and minorities adjust to prison and understand the law. Part of that right now is letting others know that the funds are available. He’s has been incarcerated for five years as part of a life sentence for a first-degree murder committed at the age 19. He has long maintained his innocence.

Members of Martinez’s unit have called the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project to ask for information on the application and how to send it to be processed. The organization and Prisoners’ Legal Services have been connecting with and providing educational materials to prisoners and their families about the stimulus funds.

If prisoners filed a 2018 or 2019 tax return, it will be a little easier to receive the stimulus relief. Funds should be dispersed to most people by the end of 2020. If a prisoner doesn’t have their personal information on file with the IRS, they can reach out to the agency to give it to them, and then attempt to get it.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Prisoners can also submit their information online using the agency’s nonfiler tool by the Nov. 21 deadline, which will probably not be widely used as most prisons don’t grant them access to personal email account and that level of internet access.

Jesse White, policy counsel for Prisoners’ Legal Services, which represents inmates in Massachusetts, said people locked up have every right to the money. “The stimulus payments are not meant only for people who pay taxes, but are meant to stimulate the economy by putting money into the pockets of people in the wake of COVID-19,” White said. “Incarcerated people have been locked in for months, many lost the meager wages that they were being paid prior to the pandemic, and they have been forced to pay exorbitant fees to stay in touch with their loved ones by phone while visits have been denied,” said White.

Lizz Matos, the organization’s executive director, said the county jail population is transient, have paid their taxes, and will be back out in the community “struggling to get back on their feet in a short period of time. It helps no one to withhold these funds to an especially disadvantaged population.”