The three rounds of stimulus checks that have been sent out since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic have explicitly included all Americans making below a certain upper-income limit in their eligibility. This means that Americans who are currently incarcerated in the criminal justice system, as well as released felons, qualify for (and have in some cases received) the stimulus checks. However, despite qualifying for stimulus payments in principle, many current inmates are still waiting, unable to address the problems that have prevented them from receiving their payments from behind bars.
In some areas of the United States, prisoners can be charged for the cost of feeding, housing, and guarding them. In Ohio, for instance, this cost is roughly $35 per day; in Michigan, it’s around $60 per day, or $1,800 per month—twice the cost of an average two-bedroom apartment in the state. While prisoners can work, theoretically helping to make back some of the cost, they are explicitly excluded from minimum wage laws, and many make only pennies per hour.
For this reason, a stimulus check—the most recent of which was worth $1,400—can be a lifeline for prisoners. However, prisoners face significant challenges in registering for, and receiving, the checks. Their largest problem concerns registering for the checks in the first place; most inmates have extremely limited access to needed resources, most importantly including computers.
There is also the issue of registering with the IRS through filing taxes. To receive a stimulus check, the inmate needs to fill out a 1040 (recovery rebate) tax return for 2020 and submit it to the government agency. However, many inmates have difficulty filing their taxes, owing in part to the uncertainty of the process and the lack of helpful resources (tax preparation advice is sparse in prison).
Even if an inmate is able to do this, they might still receive a check with significant deductions taken out by prison authorities as restitution for outstanding debts, such as the costs described above. Moreover, state and local governments are allowed to deduct expenses such as unpaid back taxes and child support payments from a stimulus check, meaning that many checks will lose all of their value while passing into an inmate’s hands. While prisoners’ rights groups have advocated against this policy—noting, for instance, that non-prisoners’ stimulus checks enjoy a certain degree of protection against deductions—it is likely that the pandemic will end before corrective action is taken.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for The National Interest.