In the spring of 2020, the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Stimulus Act, or CARES Act, was enacted by the U.S. Congress to assist U.S. citizens displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic. By April, most Americans received checks of up to $1,200 sent automatically to their bank accounts if they filed their taxes the previous year and met the minimum requirements that would provide them relief under this very important legislation. Otherwise, Americans received their stimulus via a check sent by mail to a home address.
Unfortunately, not all Americans were able to receive these funds. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS)’s Code of Federal Regulations excluded people who are incarcerated from receiving the stimulus checks. This led to a transgender inmate in California taking civil action through the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Court of California, filing an Administrative Procedural Action against the IRS on this unfair matter. Six months later, in early October, the District Court then issued an injunction requiring the IRS to extend the benefits of the CARES Act to all U.S. citizens, including all incarcerated inmates. The IRS had no choice but to comply with the injunction and immediately offer relief.
At the Arizona State Prison Complex at Eyman Cook Unit in Florence, inmates were made aware they could now receive up to $1,200 in relief by filing a 1040 tax form for the 2019 tax year. Inmates were advised that they would have to request the tax form by visiting the inmate library.
This task proved stressful for some inmates. Library staff required each inmate to present their most recent commissary receipt, indicating their current inmate trust account balance. The charge to receive the tax form would be ten cents and only one form would be issued per inmate. If the inmate was indigent or did not have available their commissary receipt, they would not be able to obtain a form, meaning they could possibly miss the tax filing deadline, which was eventually extended to Oct. 31, 2020.
The instructions to fill out the form by library staff was very limited. Inmates were advised to use their name, their prison identification number, and the address to the central unit office for Florence Complex. No other information was made available to inmates, including the timeline for when the checks were to arrive. Inmates were under the impression that the prison administration would process their stimulus checks on their behalf and then deposit those funds into their personal JPay trust account – the primary accounts used by inmates to make purchases at the commissary.
At 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 25, almost a month after the filing deadline, inmates were pushed to their limits due to unfair treatment surrounding new COVID-19 procedures put in place. This caused staff and inmates to have a standoff that resulted in a three-week long lockdown and a new controlled movement protocol. Communication via phone and email were unavailable for the first few days following the riot. However, once access became available, inmates were checking their trust accounts for weeks; there was still no stimulus money posted to anyone’s trust accounts. “They are using what happened in November as a punishment and giving us the runaround,” one inmate said.
In December, former President Donald Trump passed into law another stimulus bill for $600 to be dispersed among all U.S. citizens, including inmates, for additional relief due to the pandemic. The law did not go into effect until the start of the new year.
As inmates were waiting for the first stimulus checks, we received an email notification on our tablets about the status of the checks on Jan. 14, 2021. It stated the following:
“Per C. Amos at Inmate Banking, Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Re-entry (ADCRR) is not holding stimulus checks. Everything that has been received has been posted with a few exceptions. Some checks that have arrived for inmates without specific information, such as ADCRR # or Unit, have been returned because there are multiple inmates housed at Eyman Complex who share first and last names…”
Due to this email, inmates again became discouraged and very confused. In the days that followed, speculation spread across the recreational yard about prepaid cards, containing the funds from the IRS being sent to the central unit. Then, on Jan. 19, another notification was posted on the bulletin boards of each housing unit stating the IRS did in fact send prepaid cards that had arrived, but there was no method to process those funds.
ADCRR would need to send the cards back to the IRS and find a solution to release the funds back to each inmate to be processed to their JPay trust account.
Unsure on what to do now, inmates are now concerned about whether they have been cheated and if they will ever receive their stimulus money.
Inmates are now taking steps to receive the 1040 tax form for 2020 in hopes the IRS will process the form and provide relief. The struggle to get the 1040 tax form has increased because ofCOVID-19 restrictions that limit inmates’ access to the library.
“We cannot get any answers from anyone,” said one inmate. “We have to reach out to family and they, too, are having difficulty getting the answers we need.”
Library staff have also needed to go to each housing unit, so inmates can complete a request form for processing and then pay 10 cents to receive the form. This process could take up to two weeks.
Additionally, the updated 1040 tax form for 2020 is different to the 2019 version. There are 38 lines on the 2020 version versus 24 on the 2019 version, which has caused a great deal of confusion. Without any instructions on how to complete the form, there is a high possibility for error and incorrect tax filing can cause more harm than good by increasing the risks of tax penalties, fraud accusations, and certainly no access to stimulus money.
Out of more than 1,200 inmates at Eyman-Cook Unit, a handful of inmates have confirmed that they have received some or all of their stimulus money. Most of those individuals had filed their taxes prior to the conception of the CARES Act, or they left the Eyman-Cook Unit before the Nov. 25 riot.
The rest are left without a resolution, without any transparency or follow up. There is a sense that the department of corrections does not believe that inmates deserve that money.
“We are U.S. citizens and pay taxes,” one inmate said. “Our family also provides us money to survive even though they may have lost their jobs.” but there is a sense that the ADCRR has leverage over the inmates and that they do not believe that they deserve that money.
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.