More than a year after Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic, Security (CARES) Act, many prisoners — after overcoming various hurdles — have received a portion of the stimulus funds the federal government sent to all eligible U.S. citizens.
For incarcerated people, the process of applying for stimulus checks has been beset by problems since the early days of the pandemic. In May 2020, the IRS determined incarcerated people were not eligible for stimulus checks and requested that those who previously received checks return the money. Payments only resumed last fall after a successful class action lawsuit brought on behalf of prisoners resulted in a federal judge deciding that the government could not withhold stimulus checks solely on the basis of a person’s incarcerated status.
While I and many of my fellow inmates at California State Prison, Corcoran, have received a portion of our stimulus checks, more than half of the amount was withheld to pay court-ordered restitution. While California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order prohibiting debt collectors from garnishing stimulus checks, the executive order specifically allowed for funds to be withdrawn for victim restitution and any payments for child, spousal, and family support.
Some prisons across the nation have deducted other items like unpaid court fees and fines, costs of incarceration, or, in Oregon’s case, the cost of self-improvement programs, from the stimulus checks. I would have preferred that my stimulus checks be sent directly to my mother or sister instead of being garnished if that had been an option.
While some argue that there is no reason to provide stimulus checks to prisoners, these funds can replace the financial assistance that family and friends otherwise provide. Some prisoners that I know sent the stimulus checks to their loved ones to support them financially. Others chose not to tell their loved ones that they received the checks so they could continue receiving their financial assistance.
The stimulus checks have also changed certain socioeconomic dynamics inside prison.
Class inequalities are prevalent in prisons, as they are in the rest of American society. But with a momentary influx of money through the stimulus checks, many prisoners are now on a more level playing field, at least financially.
All inmates receiving stimulus checks can now likely afford to go to the prison commissary for months, order packages from companies that cater to the prison population, and, at least at my prison, enjoy food from charity fundraisers that are conducted almost every month.
Prior to receiving the stimulus checks, only a handful of prisoners in the top socioeconomic bracket could afford to go to the fundraisers. These prisoners were either upper-middle class, did not owe any court-ordered restitution, or worked in premium job assignments earning significantly more than the average prisoner.
Often, associations on the inside are based at least in part on what one can get from being around a specific individual. Sometimes an otherwise despised prisoner has something of value or the connections to make something happen: set a prisoner up with a potential romantic partner on the outside or provide access to drugs, cell phones or other coveted items.
A lower class prisoner, on the other hand, has no outside support, and, therefore, often picks up one or more side hustles to support himself. Some prisoners cut or braid hair. Others fix electronic appliances, make cardboard shelves or greeting cards, paint portraits, sew clothes, or perform legal work.
Prisoners who don’t have side hustles instead cater to the whims of other prisoners so they can watch another prisoner’s television, share a meal with him, or access basic amenities.
But this very small influx of capital in the form of stimulus checks has changed the nature of many of these relationships now that most prisoners can afford these basic amenities.
For example, there is an individual in my housing unit who was one of the best electronic repair prisoners. Even correctional officers would bring him their broken fans, radios, and televisions to fix.
But when he finally received his first stimulus check, he immediately shut down his fix-it business. I understand the impulse because I watched him be subjected to the worst type of treatment from some patrons. This man is just one example of many other prisoners who now find themselves able to do some of the things that they had only dreamed of doing before. This is all due to the constant grind of just scraping by to get basic amenities.
I have seen some prisoners blow through each stimulus check as if there was an endless supply. Some prisoners with no outstanding restitution may have access to more than $3,000, which allows them to stock up on necessities, order packages, send money to loved ones, and still have money remaining.
Other prisoners receiving smaller checks because they owe restitution or child support have vowed to save their money for the time when they hopefully will be paroled.
In my view, however, many are just spending the money as it comes. Without a doubt, a course on money management would be useful to many prisoners, many of whom now reside in a financial vacuum of sorts. While having no source of income will result in homelessness and other real-life consequences on the outside, all prisoners can expect to receive three meals a day, clothes, and housing at the very least.
In any case, the stimulus payments from the U.S. government to its incarcerated citizens is a symbol to me of what makes this country great: The realization that all of us, no matter our circumstances, have been deeply affected by COVID-19 and could use some assistance as we look forward together to a brighter future.
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.