Inmates receive stimulus checks

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By Patti Mason | News Analysis

NEW BERN – The latest stimulus package approved by Congress, and signed by President Biden, does not prohibit inmates and prisoners from receiving a $1,400 stimulus payment.

Last year, in the first two stimulus packages, the IRS tried to prevent stimulus checks from going to inmates. However, a federal judge overruled that effort. 

Like everyone else, prisoners still have to meet eligibility requirements for what is known as an Economic Impact Payment: 

1)  U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or qualifying resident alien.

2)  Valid Social Security Number, or a spouse who has one.

3)  Not claimed as a dependent on tax return of someone else.

4)  Income for 2018 or 2019 income under $99,000 (single, or married filing separately),

     or under $198,000 (married filing jointly). 

5)  Zero income also qualifies.

Many have questioned whether prisoners should receive stimulus checks. Not everything is a legal question, sometimes it is a moral and ethical question. And, there are always two sides. 

FIRST UP: Case for inmates getting the checks. 

Emancipate NC, a Durham-based group that acts on behalf of incarcerated people, has been instrumental. In March and April 2020, the Internal Revenue Service routinely denied payments to those who were incarcerated as of March 27, 2020 or at any time thereafter. 

On Aug.1, 2020 a lawsuit ensued. On Sept. 24, U.S. District Court Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton ordered the Treasury and the IRS to stop withholding payments to anyone who is incarcerated

Through court decisions, Emancipate NC also obtained a decision that the first stimulus check for inmates cannot be held back to pay past-due child support. Subsequent court decisions have given the second stimulus check even greater protection than the first! There is now a prohibition on garnishing any portion of the stimulus money to pay past due taxes. The inmates’ stimulus money is also off-limits for other types of debt collection efforts..

Confidential sources in the North Carolina Department of Public Safety report that numerous state-run prison facilities now have at least one full-time staffer handling extensive paperwork required to facilitate inmates’ receipt of stimulus monies. 

SECOND: Case against inmates getting the checks

This argument cites the rationale for stimulus – stimulating the economy! The assumption is that prisoners will not be putting the money back into the economy while in prison. Family members can, of course, do so – but only if they receive proceeds from the inmate!

Inmates are most likely not earning an income and thus are not actually paying taxes – in fact they are consuming government revenues to provide them with all their daily needs.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the country spends upwards of $182 billion annually to house prisoners. This statistic comes from MarketWatch.com, reported in August 2020. 

While no one likes the history of debtor prisons where incarcerated inmates could never secure their freedom until debts were paid off – this is no where close to that old system. 

Craven County’s own Sheriff Chip Hughes was interviewed on the Coastal Carolina Taxpayer Association’s radio show and this subject came up. At the Craven County jail,  stimulus money is going into a “commissary account” for an inmate – to purchase snacks (e.g., honey buns) and other incidentals.

Some of the money is left in the commissary account to make the inmate’s life easier; however, some is used to pay items such as medical bills and other cost items incurred while in prison to offset the cost to taxpayers.  An inmate who receives tax refunds, stimulus, or income is no longer indigent, and can afford to pay for some of his or her care – just like they would outside of the jail.  

If children and families of inmates can use the money – then many suggest sending  the money directly to them, not to the inmates – wouldn’t that be more ethical?   Hats off to our Sheriff Hughes in Craven County for finding a middle ground – allowing the inmate some benefits but also limiting the taxpayers’ liability for more costs and enabling the inmate to contribute back to society instead of just taking.