Prisoners May Finally Be Able to Cash in Their Stimulus Checks. It Won’t Do Much.

Photo by Erik Wilde | CC BY-SA 2.0

by Khalid Mohieldin

After months of legal limbo, incarcerated persons in the United States may finally be able to claim their coronavirus stimulus checks. Chief Judge of the Northern District of California Phyllis J. Hamilton ruled earlier this month that the federal government could not bar individuals from claiming their stimulus check administered under the CARES Act based solely on their incarceration status. This past week, Hamilton and her court laid out guidelines for the IRS to allow prisoners to file simplified paper tax returns by Oct. 30, or to electronically submit them by Nov. 21.

Previously, the IRS attempted to use social security regulations to bar prisoners from collecting their checks, even though the CARES Act held no language that excluded those behind bars. Almost 85,000 prisoners had received $100 million in stimulus payments earlier this year before the U.S. Department of the Treasury reversed course and decided they were ineligible, asking state and federal prisons to collect and send back all previously sent checks in early May, and warning prisoners that attempting to cash in a stimulus check may be considered fraud. 

In her general summary of the decision, Judge Hamilton called attempts by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to prohibit prisoners from receiving their stimulus packages “arbitrary” and “capricious.” While the rollout of the stimulus package was certainly marred by ineptitude from the federal government, this court case only reaffirms the intentionality of prison debt.

Prisoners are among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States. According to federal data, only 55% of ex-prisoners reported any earnings in the first full year after their arrest. For those inmates who did choose to work, they rarely earned respectable wages. In Pennsylvania, the average daily earning of an inmate working in a non-industry job is $0.45 an hour, while in states like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, prisoners go unpaid for their labor. Even more startling, since 2001, average income earnings of prisoners have declined

Of course, the majority of prisons are public institutions, wherein the government houses and feeds prisoners with taxpayer dollars. Thus, wages and income shouldn’t be an issue, right? Unfortunately, the government has deliberately created micro-capitalist economies — both formal and informal — in between prison walls that only serve to strengthen the poverty cycle among incarcerated individuals. The most common regulated prison market is the commissary, a store inside prisons with various personal items (e.g. toothpaste, toothbrushes, clothing, shoes, and snacks) that inmates may purchase. Consulting groups advise prisoners and families of prisoners to initially contribute $200 towards the commissary, even though that price range makes it an unaffordable luxury for most incarcerated individuals. More prisoners instead are active members of the informal prison economy. Over the past few decades, cigarettes, stamps, and ramen packages have all become staples of an informal prison economy that emphasizes capitalist value, even in an inherently public institution. 

And just like regular capitalist economies, fees exist within prison economies, creating debilitating debt for prisoners. Many prisoners across the United States must pay for their own court fees, telephone usage, rent, and health insurance copayments. Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania have been particularly egregious in the latter two categories. For the past 20 years, Pennsylvania prisons have taken up the practice of requiring inmates to pay their own rent, with rates ranging anywhere from $5 to over $70. Additionally, while prisoners may enroll in Medicaid, the program often fails to cover various essential health insurance options. Thus, inmates may be pressured into buying private insurance, and Pennsylvania prisons have been notorious for spending little on healthcare. Pennsylvania ranks among the bottom of states in overall prison healthcare spending, accentuating an already devastating public health crisis within our nation’s prisons. With all of these factors compounded, it becomes clear to see why ex-prisoners regularly owe as much as 60% of their income to criminal debts.

Judge Hamilton’s decision thus provides some momentary relief for prisoners and families of prisoners, given the lack of earnings most prisoners can expect. However, concerns still loom large. Firstly, the IRS has indicated that the federal government may appeal the decision, leading to more delayed checks and confusion among prisoners. Additionally, many advocates fear that the rushed deadlines the IRS has set up will prevent millions of prisoners from becoming eligible in time. As activists have noted, filing tax papers for prisoners is incredibly difficult given that most prisons prohibit inmates from using the internet or holding a personal email account while incarcerated. 

These complications emphasize that even if prisoners may now be eligible for stimulus checks, the economic reality of most American prisons prohibits any type of economic advancement. We shouldn’t have to rely on the discretion of courts to decide whether or not prisoners and their families should have basic access to livable income. Our prison system is deeply rooted in economic inequity, and while a check may help in the short run, economic liberation for these prisoners will require much, much more.

For information on how to apply for a stimulus check while incarcerated in Pennsylvania, visit

For general information on how to apply for a stimulus check while incarcerated, visit

For information on how to complete tax documentation online, visit

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