Earlier this year — when the pandemic was wreaking havoc across the country and Congress was debating a much-needed relief package — Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts had a question: Would prisoners be eligible for the stimulus checks at the heart of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act?
In Pressley’s district — the only one in the state where residents of color are the majority — “1 in 4 children are growing up with an incarcerated parent or caregiver, like I did,” she said in an interview. “There are families burdened by the weight of food insecurity and unemployment, and many are on the margins of eviction.” A $1,200 check, she said, “could be very consequential” for them.
There was nothing in the legislation that barred prisoners from receiving the money. Pressley made sure of that. But nearly eight months later, too many prisoners across the nation are waiting for their checks — victims of the Trump administration’s cruelty and incompetence.
Now, though, after an important rebuke of the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service in federal court, the IRS has a chance to step up and help some of the most vulnerable people in the country. The agency must act — swiftly.
The IRS started off on the right foot — paying $100 million in stimulus funds to nearly 85,000 prisoners. But in May, in a striking reversal, the federal agency issued new guidance that said incarcerated individuals did not qualify. The new policy seems to have been in response to an audit that found that the IRS was sending checks to deceased people and prisoners.
While sending payments to dead people was clearly an error that needed to be addressed, denying stimulus money to prisoners when they weren’t explicitly ineligible for the funds in the CARES Act was a cruel change of heart from the Trump administration. As a consequence, some state and federal prisons withheld payments that had already been earmarked for prisoners. In Kansas, more than $200,000 in stimulus for incarcerated individuals was intercepted, while Idaho and Montana seized more than $90,000 combined. But absent any CARES Act bar on stimulus checks for prisoners, the IRS guidance was unlawful. Prisoners’ advocates filed a class action lawsuit in August, and a month later a federal judge sided with the plaintiffs.
The pandemic-induced economic downturn that is “affecting Americans outside of prison also impacts those inside prison,” wrote US District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in her ruling.
Even after the momentous court decision, some prisoners were unaware they could apply. And yet, the federal government seems to have been blocking advocates’ efforts to spread the word. For instance, two legal newsletters sent to thousands of federal inmates were suddenly banned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, according to a report last month from the Marshall Project. The bureau said the newsletters were “detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, or might facilitate criminal activity.” But there was little evidence that the newsletters were disrupting prison life. The more likely explanation: The latest issues of both newsletters had referenced the court ruling and included information on how to apply for the payments.
In Massachusetts, there are 13,000 individuals incarcerated in state and county facilities who could potentially be eligible for stimulus money, according to Pressley. It is unclear how many have applied for the benefit. But the IRS hasn’t made it easy. In Middlesex county, the sheriff’s office received a package from the IRS on Nov. 2 with 1040 tax forms to distribute to inmates, with a requirement that they be postmarked by Nov. 4 — only two days later.
A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Correction, said that, in the statewide system, only 45 economic impact payments have been deposited into DOC accounts since Nov. 2. (It’s also possible that in some cases family members applied on behalf of inmates.)
The IRS has since extended a key deadline for prisoners and others who don’t normally file taxes; they now have until Nov. 21 to apply for stimulus checks. But it’s incumbent on an agency that threw up so many roadblocks in recent months to be proactive. The IRS should extend the deadline again — and this time make sure prisoners know they are eligible for the stimulus and encourage them to file the paperwork.
The stimulus restraints put on the prison population are unfair. Poor families and communities of color are being hit especially hard by the pandemic, and the effort to help prisoners’ families must be stepped up now.
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