Inmates can get COVID relief money, no matter their offense, judge rules

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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KTVI) — Prisoners will soon get federal stimulus money, no matter their offense.

A federal judge recently ruled prisoners are eligible for those $1,200 stimulus checks. Now prisons are helping inmates access the necessary forms to get the money.

“Certainly, Congress had the ability to render people ineligible if they wanted to or thought it was important, but they didn’t decide to do that,” said Yaman Salahi, the attorney who won the ruling.

Salahi and his firm challenged the IRS, which in May posted “Frequently Asked Questions” on its website.

Question 15: “Does someone who is incarcerated qualify for the payment?”

The IRS responded: “No. A payment made to someone who is incarcerated should be returned to the IRS.”

“We decided to take a closer look at the law that Congress passed and realized there was nothing in there that supported the IRS’s decision, and so we felt very strongly was what the IRS had done was not lawful and something that had to be corrected,” Salahi said.

A federal judge agreed, ruling this month that “excluding incarcerated individuals from receiving an economic impact payment solely on the basis of their incarcerated status is arbitrary and capricious.”

According to corrections officers and other prison workers, inmates must be told about the decision. The Missouri Department of Corrections said inmates are notified electronically through what are called JPay tablets, and the money will go into their JPay account.

The Illinois Department of Corrections issued this statement:

The required documentation has been distributed to all men and women in IDOC custody. Thanks to the assistance of Northwestern University, a team of volunteers is ensuring the applications are postmarked by the due date. 

The stimulus checks will be added to the offender’s account. Like any funds in an offender’s trust, they will be disbursed to the offender upon release. If a stimulus check has been received after an offender is released, IDOC staff will contact the offender using the forwarding address supplied by the offender upon release.

Illinois Department of Corrections

“The whole point of the aid package was to help people who were affected by COVID-19. Well, when somebody ends up in prison, their life doesn’t end,” Salahi said. “They continue having family members on the outside. They continue having friends on the outside, they have children on the outside. Those people are paying the costs of incarceration, thousands of dollars a year.”

The level of conviction of an inmate has no bearing on whether they get the payments, even if they’re serving a life sentence. And it appears child support is the only expense that will be automatically garnished. Wrongful death claims and other money inmates may owe may not be intercepted unless victims take their own court action.

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