A sample check from the direct payment program Congress passed in March. (Image: U.S. Secret Service)
A September federal court ruling opened the door for inmates to apply for the $1,200 coronavirus relief stimulus money. But a quickly approaching Nov. 4 deadline has advocacy groups worried many incarcerated will miss the opportunity.
The Nevada Department of Corrections isn’t actively tracking how many of its nearly 13,000 inmates have obtained or submitted the requisite 1040 forms.
“We didn’t ask (facilities) to track it,” said Bill Quenga, a spokesman with the Nevada Department of Corrections. “I wish I would have thought about that sooner. So we have no way of knowing who has gotten their forms and who all is filling them out.”
Quenga said the department has printed required forms and posted information in prison common areas to inform inmates at all facilities of their ability to apply for the coronavirus relief funds.
But groups including the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada’s Mass Liberation project, Return Strong, and the ACLU of Nevada are saying not only could corrections officials be doing more to assist inmates, but not all facilities are providing consistent information.
“They said they have put (information) up for folks to know and that caseworkers are helping, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of that,” said Leslie Turner, who heads the Mass Liberation Project. “When I talk with incarcerated people right now, they tell me ‘no’ and ‘we need help.’ … If it is posted, it can’t just be posted. You can’t just say, ‘here is this information.’ There has to also be a channel for them to actually file and get it done. ”
Jodi Hocking, who runs Return Strong, an organization that helps family members of incarcerated individuals, recounts some of her interactions with corrections officials.
“I was told NDOC hasn’t formally decided what their position is on the inmate stimulus checks,” Hocking said, referring to a conversation with an official at Lovelock Correctional Center. “Our pushback was that NDOC doesn’t get a choice in that.”
She along with Nick Shepack, a policy fellow with the ACLU of Nevada, also reached out to individual prisons and received varying information about how inmates obtain paperwork.
“A group of my leaders from Return Strong reached out to all the facilities and asked to speak with wardens, case workers or anyone we could,” Hocking said. “We found out what we suspected. Communication is very haphazard and inconsistent. There are some places where inside, one unit has every piece of information and it’s posted and the case worker is passing it along. But in other units, there is nothing. Nobody knows anything. (Inmates) don’t have access to the paperwork.”
Quenga said he wasn’t aware of inconsistent practices among facilities.
“All I know is that I put word out to management units to ensure all institutions post about it, including instruction,” he said. “It would be up to the inmates to review it. It’s posted in common areas. It is their responsibility to see if they qualify. They’re the ones who have to do it. We can’t go to each inmate to say, ‘Hey do you think you qualify?’”
Turner countered that the department not only could, but should survey the population to see who is eligible for relief.
“We could send them the paperwork,” she added. “We are willing to pay for that. We’ve paid before to send a bunch of paperwork inside. I think if NDOC could partner with community organizations, we could figure out a logistical way to get these filed so that they have access to money that is theirs to claim.”
While Nov. 4 is the deadline for paper forms, the ruling allows inmates to file online until Nov. 21.
But that’s not currently an option at Nevada corrections facilities.
“Inmates can’t get online,” Quenga said. “It’s per statute that they can’t have any access to the internet inside the prison.”
Incarcerated are eligible
When the coronavirus relief bill allocated $1,200 to millions of Americans, incarcerated individuals were initially eligible to receive money. That decision was quickly revoked, resulting in a class-action lawsuit by the Equal Justice Society and California law firm Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein on behalf of incarcerated people.
In September, Judge Phyllis Hamilton with the U.S. District Court of Northern California ruled in favor of the incarcerated and ordered the IRS to process stimulus payments. The IRS was also instructed to send out notices to prisons and mail inmates blank 1040 forms.
The law firm posted the IRS letter to prisons, which said: “The number of documents you will receive is based on the number of individuals with valid Social Security Numbers in your custody. We expect that these mailed materials will arrive at your locations as early as October 21, 2020.”
But Quenga said the Nevada Department of Corrections hasn’t received anything from the IRS, adding NDOC decided to print forms on their own.
Turner, who is part of a nationwide network of inmate advocates and criminal justice reform groups, has heard other states also haven’t received forms from the IRS.
Even though Quenga said NDOC would provide forms to inmates, groups like PLAN and Return Strong have still received requests from inmates who say they haven’t gotten forms.
Turner said PLAN has helped 43 inmates so far.
“We are mostly working with families and getting them what they need to file the paperwork for their loved ones on the inside,” she added. “For the people who don’t have any family or friends, those folks, we’ve sent packets in.”
Azzurra Crispino with Prison Abolition & Prisoner Support, a national organization that has mailed out forms to inmates all over the country, said the group has sent 69 packets to Nevada inmates. It hasn’t received a response from the majority.
“If people were denied the mail, we would receive notification from the prison it had been denied, which has happened nationwide,” Crispino said.
While the department isn’t tracking, Quenga said two facilities including Northern Nevada Correctional Center and Ely State Prison have reported some numbers.
About 90 percent of Northern Nevada and 12 percent of Ely, both with populations close to 1,200 each, have started the paperwork.
It should go beyond handing forms to inmates, Turner said.
“If a couple of tax professionals could come in and have the incarcerated people who are eligible sign up ahead of time, they could knock those out,” she said. “That’s a pipe dream. I doubt NDOC would invest in doing something like that. Logistically it makes the most sense seeing we are up against a deadline.”
Quenga said inmates are able to take questions to case workers. Hocking of Return Strong questions what barriers might prevent inmates from accessing case workers, especially with quarantines and lockdowns because of COVID-19.
Since the ruling, inmates across the country have struggled to get information about how to file or even access needed application forms. When mailing out forms to different prisons, Crispino never knows which ones would be denied.
“It’s hard to say state by state because in certain cases it’s prison by prison and in other cases it’s mail official by mail official,” Crispino said. “Yesterday, as we were processing the mail, we noticed we had two letters from the same Texas prison. One was from the mailroom telling us the information we sent in was being denied for having a tax form, and the other was a tax form that had been filled out and was being sent back to us. How did both of those happen? It appears one mailroom staff decided to censor the entire letter for having a 1040 and the other let the mail through.”
Some facilities have barred inmates from getting mail for weeks to prevent COVID-19 from entering the prisons. Quenga said there are no COVID-19-related restrictions on retrieving mail.
Assisting their families
With the deadline to file forms only a week away, Crispino noted many inmates will still fall through the cracks.
Part of it is due to the presidential election grabbing the focus of many civil rights groups who would usually be helping. But it’s also pushback from people who don’t think people who are incarcerated should have stimulus checks.
“I’ve seen some people on Twitter say, ‘but they’re prisoners, what are they going to economically stimulate?’ or saying they didn’t have additional expenses,” she said.
Hocking said many incarcerated people would send the money back to their families.
“I have families who have little kids and a lost income,” she said. “This is either taking the burden off the family or assisting the family in paying bills. One person I talked with recently said the $1,200 stimulus they got (from their husband who is incarcerated) stopped them from being evicted.”
Hocking added people assume those who are incarcerated have everything they need.
“This isn’t true,” Crispino added. “People needed to get over-the-counter medication. They needed to get an additional commissary. All of the things you might try to buy on the outside to prevent COVID, incarcerated people were also doing.”
Her family, like many others, had additional expenses because of a family member who is locked up during COVID outbreaks.
“His facility went down to one meal a day,” she added. “We had to pay an attorney to see if we could get him out early because he did test positive for COVID. And our phone calls have been through the roof.”
“But the reality is, what does my husband get? A roll of toilet paper and a hotel-sized bar of soap. You can’t live off that stuff,” Hocking said. “Their punishment is their lack of freedom. Their punishment is not to be dehumanized.
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