How Prisons Grab Stimulus Dollars From Prisoners

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Illustration by AK Rockefeller via Flickr.

In the wake of systemic processing delays that have meant that many incarcerated people still haven’t received stimulus funds promised through the CARES act, those lucky enough to be paid often discover that prison systems have heavily garnished their checks, reports The Intercept.

Although Congress included in the CARES Act language protecting the $1,200 checks from expedited collection for back taxes, federal debts, and various state debts and maintained safeguards against other types of debt collection, those safeguards don’t instruct prison systems what to do (or not to do) with the stimulus checks once they receive them, as normally prisons have little to no role in distributing these kinds of payments.

Without comprehensive guidance on processing the first, larger payments, corrections systems have acted like highwaymen, intercepting the checks and skimming funds from incarcerated people to pay for fines and fees associated with their incarceration, depositing the remainder into commissary accounts, The Intercept said.

The news outlet  queried the 10 state correctional systems incarcerating the most individuals about their garnishment practices for CARES Act payments. Only the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it had not garnished money from these checks. About one-third of people in prison had not received a CARES Act payment before the IRS reversed course in the spring and stopped sending checks to incarcerated individuals.

While Congress sought to make the second payments less susceptible to debt collection, including sweeping language that multiple state prison systems insists safeguard the totality of these funds, prisons are still charging prisoners fees and deductions incurred under the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which requires incarcerated litigants to pay court filing fees, from the $600 payments. One-third of families with an incarcerated family member takes on debt because of the cost of incarceration, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

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