Bozelko: The problem with CARES payments to prisoners
This month, a federal district court judge issued an order to the Internal Revenue Service to stop withholding $1,200 payments under the CARES Act from 85,000 inmates in state or federal prisons and allow those who didn’t get a check to file a 2019 tax return so that they may. In a move that may cost the government billions of dollars, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton said that the CARES Act never excluded inmates. They can get payments like anyone else.
It’s unclear how Congress allowed this ambiguity in the CARES Act in the first place since this is the second time we’re facing the issue of stimulus payments to incarcerated populations. In 2009, about $425,000 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s $13 billion in stimulus payments went to inmates.
Because the Recovery Act sent payments to Social Security beneficiaries, President Barack Obama signed the No Social Security for Prisoners Act of 2009, ostensibly to prevent this from happening again. But CARES Act checks aren’t tied to federal benefit entitlement, so it appears that the only statute designed to prevent this doesn’t apply here.
While the court didn’t see it the same way, much of this issue turns on the purpose of the CARES Act to me. I think it was to stimulate the national economy; after all, there’s no other reason to be tracking how much of it was spent or saved. Still, according to the Associated Press Stylebook, it’s improper to call the law a stimulus plan because it was only designed to replace the money lost in the economy, not to stimulate demand.
I’m sure economic theory respects this difference, but practical reality doesn’t. The CARES Act was designed to protect U.S. residents by providing them the means to interact with various markets - while not falling into total financial ruin; whether that counts as stimulus or not doesn’t really matter to me.
Those potential billions sent to inmates won’t flow into the economy. Incarceration limits the ways in which people can spend their money; inmates purchase from commissaries and restricted partners. Calling it a market is generous; it’s really a monopoly dominated by the Keefe Group. Every year the mercantile silo of the prison commissary industry rakes in at least $1.6 billion, according to Prison Policy Initiative.
Now it will likely make even more and prevent needy portions of the economy from getting this infusion.
Despite President Donald Trump’s moratorium on evictions, people are being ousted from their homes right now. Food pantries struggle to alleviate hunger. Businesses are closing for lack of patronage. Spending billions on people whose basic needs are met - even if they’re being met badly - instead of saving those whose needs aren’t is immoral. We’re living in an emergency state. This is about triage, not inmates’ rights.
Prison advocates often argue that we shouldn’t consider prisoners as living outside society, as isolated as they may be. I agree with that. Inmates are community members. They just happen to be invisible ones.
But part of membership is responsibility. We can see that when inmates save guards’ lives, raise money for a charitable cause or pitch in during a natural disaster. Taking that money and funneling it to companies like Keefe or JPay, which makes tens of millions by charging inmates to send emails, or Securus, which makes hundreds of millions on inmate phone calls, doesn’t help the larger community. It just strengthens the businesses already ripping off prisoners and their families.
Incarceration is expensive. I know how much an additional $1,200 can help someone inside; communications and commissary can cost $500 a month, which often puts families in debt. A majority of prisoners come from poverty, says new research from the American Action Forum, and then make anywhere from nothing to pennies an hour from their prison jobs. A few facilities don’t supply what they’re legally obligated to provide to inmates, from food to tampons. Getting those items from the commissary can be necessary.
But I wonder how long inmates will be allowed to keep this money at all. Facilities may place a lien on it to cover costs of incarceration or legal financial obligations. If this payment ends up being defined as a windfall, then the government may have a right to take it.
If the money stays in inmate accounts, it will invite such a backlash from prison staff that very few, if any, advocates will be able to help. To see people who aren’t paying monthly rent or utility bills get a payment like this will likely either incense or incentivize the staff.
Last year they got miffed seeing prisoners paid between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour when the government shutdown - something that the inmates had nothing to do with - stopped their own payroll; $1,200 in inmate accounts will either enhance the bitterness or expand opportunities for abuse. Neither option is good for inmates - or the rest of society.
Don’t be surprised when the stories of guards “losing” inmates’ newly purchased property, or unwarranted discipline designed to strip an inmate of her purchasing privileges, appear. I witnessed them do it for no reason. When they’re feeling cheated and resentful, it will be worse.
I know my take will anger some advocates who celebrate this judicial decision; they think the court’s opinion established that prisoners are equal to everyone else. But that’s not actually what the decision says. It simply interpreted statutory language and found that it didn’t exclude inmates. This isn’t the victory that they - that I - want it to be.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.