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Photo by  Sharon McCutcheon  on  Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“Listen up gentleman!” I proclaimed loudly in the dorm meeting. The chatter continued. “Listen, and you could have $1,200 in your pocket!” The room got quiet. I finally got their attention. 

A federal judge in Northern California ruled that the IRS can’t keep coronavirus relief checks from people solely because they are incarcerated. We’ll have to file paperwork to get a payment, but we might as well try it.” 

My announcement was met with much skepticism. 

“$1,200? It might as well be $1 million!” someone said. “There is no way we are getting that money. No way.” 

Another person chimed in, “You mean they’re just going to hand out checks? When have they ever given us anything?” 

I reassured the group that I heard their concerns, but the news sounded legitimate . 

When I started passing information around the room, the doubt returned. “It will just be garnished for my surcharges.” “I owe child support.” “It seems like a scam.” “I have been locked up for 20 years. There’s no way I will qualify.” 

I have noticed throughout my time in prison that whenever there is even the slightest possibility of something good happening to incarcerated people, we don’t even want to entertain the thought. The oppressed mindset we often acquire during our incarceration leaves most of us with little confidence that any stroke of good fortune could truly happen. Glimmers of hope flee swiftly, and many incarcerated people quickly give up.

Still, I press the room. “What do we have to lose?” 

“How do we apply? We don’t have the internet,” someone asked. I explained about the paper application that we would have to mail in. “Not everyone is eligible, but it’s worth looking into,” I added. 

Still, the dorm remained unconvinced. “There’s no way this works. One group I don’t screw with is the IRS,” someone said.

Shortly after, a posting about the stimulus check appeared on our dorm’s bulletin board, and the news became more believable. The dorm united  like we never have before, not just by the almighty dollar, but by what these particular dollars represent to us  incarcerated people.

A $1,200 check can mean a lot in prison. 

Incarcerated people often have to pay for their own hygienic products and food just to be properly clean and fed. Phone calls can be very expensive, not to mention the cost of visits (for those lucky enough to have them). The financial burden is great on family and friends under normal circumstances, but it is especially heavy during the COVID-19 pandemic when many of our loved ones are struggling in their own right. 

A $1,200 stimulus check means not only much-needed financial relief for those of us making cents on the hour (if anything at all), it also represents dignity. 

Dignity is not having to make a phone call or write a letter to an already financially-strapped family member or friend explaining why money is needed, yet again. 

Instead, if someone asks if we need anything, our response could be a proud, “No, I got it this time.” Perhaps this dignity can even mean giving an incarcerated parent the ability to buy their children clothes or help a significant other pay a bill — turning the tables and allowing us to give and provide when we have grown so accustomed to taking. 

Incarcerated people who are eligible for the stimulus check do not simply want the money in a straightforward sense, though it would of course be enormously helpful for many of us. What we truly want is that money’s intangible worth. 

Receiving a stimulus check implies worth in a society that in most other ways tends to forget about us. Receiving a stimulus check reminds us that we, too, are human beings. 

So, when asked, “Why would the government give us a stimulus check?” the answer should be clear: “We are Americans, too.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Paul Grossman is a writer incarcerated in New York.