Stimulus, round 2: Incarcerated people will be eligible for new round of payments
At the end of an otherwise disappointing session of Congress, the inclusion of incarcerated people in the stimulus program is a small ray of hope.
by Stephen Raher, December 30, 2020
In the wake of the recently passed stimulus bill, many Americans are complaining about the paltry direct payments of $600. Without detracting from Congress’s failure to support the millions of people who need help, it is worth pausing to acknowledge one unexpected victory in the bill: It contains no prohibition on stimulus payments for incarcerated people.1
The previous stimulus bill, passed in March, took some people by surprise by not making incarcerated people ineligible for direct cash payments. The IRS made an ill-advised (not to mention unauthorized) attempt to exclude incarcerated people, but this policy was slapped down by the federal courts. As we wrote previously, because Congress did not exclude people in prison or jail, the IRS had no choice but to issue the payments to incarcerated people who otherwise qualified. Others who made this same argument ultimately prevailed in court and incarcerated people began to receive stimulus checks.
In July, when Congress first started to consider a subsequent round of stimulus, the Senate Finance Committee proposed legislative language that would exclude incarcerated people from receiving funds (both going forward and retroactively). The fact that no such language appears in the bill passed in December suggests that this issue was probably the subject of actual negotiation.
It’s a good thing that Congress stuck to the policy of including incarcerated people in the pool of eligible recipients. Even before the pandemic, day-to-day life in prison and jail was getting expensive, with commissary charges for basic food and hygiene items, and increasingly common pay-to-play e-book and music programs. But the COVID-19 crisis has brought communications costs (phone, video, and electronic messaging) into sharp contrast. In the many facilities that have suspended in-person visits, phone and video are now essential services (which come with a price tag). When incarcerated people lack the money needed to pay for basic health and communications items, the financial burden typically falls on their loved ones on the outside who may have to sacrifice basic needs to support family members in prison.
The second round of stimulus payments will help people pay for basic necessities in prison or jail, and perhaps begin saving to cover expenses upon release from custody. At the end of an otherwise disappointing session of Congress, the inclusion of incarcerated people in the stimulus program is a small ray of hope.