Massachusetts advocates and legal organizations are scrambling to get the word out to people incarcerated in the state’s prison and jails about an Oct. 30 deadline to apply for federal stimulus payments, after a court reaffirmed they are eligible for the money.
More than 13,000 prisoners may be eligible to receive up to $1,200 in federal stimulus payments as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, signed into law in March.
Mac Hudson, a prisoner at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Concord, told GBH News by email that prisoners had been confused about whether they can apply or not. “But there’s a great movement to meet the potential deadline for filing as of late,’’ he said.
Questions about eligibility arose in May when the Internal Revenue Service released information on its website that incarcerated people were not eligible for the funding. Prisoners and their advocates followed with a class-action lawsuit in California arguing the federal law does not disqualify prisoners from receiving payments.
Since then, federal judge Phyllis Hamilton has issued a series of rulings, the latest Oct. 14, finding that all economically eligible Americans are entitled to receive stimulus payments regardless of their incarceration status. The IRS appealed, but posted on its website that it currently, “cannot deny a payment to someone who is incarcerated if they meet the criteria.”
Jesse White, policy counsel at the nonprofit Prisoners’ Legal Services, says the organization has been sending pamphlets to incarcerated people in Massachusetts and their families, explaining how they can receive stimulus checks.
“Almost every prisoner in Massachusetts should be eligible to make this claim. The vast majority are under the poverty line,” White said. “I just hope that people who have incarcerated loved ones are able to access this information as quickly as possible to get these claims in.”
Eligible U.S. citizens and permanent residents have until Nov. 21 to register online to receive a stimulus payment. Since most people in prison do not have access to a computer, they will have to meet a tighter deadline, postmarking their stimulus requests by the end of the month.
The issue has created confusion and — in at least one case — allegations of retaliation, in the Massachusetts prison system.
Charles Diorio, a prisoner at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, says he filed for the stimulus money but never received it. He claims a correctional officer accused him of attempting to “defraud the government” and threatened retaliation if he pursued his efforts to obtain the money.
Diorio, who is the author of a book called “Run Charlie Run,” says he would benefit from $1,200 to purchase a typewriter and cover phone calls and postage. He’s serving 15 to 20 years for a 2013 conviction of armed kidnapping. “With $1,200, you could live in prison for a year,’’ he said in a phone call with GBH News.
The Department of Correction released a statement saying the state “will facilitate access for all inmates to the forms necessary to submit a request” and that no prisoners should be denied payment because of their incarceration. DOC officials also said Diorio’s allegations were being investigated.
“The Department is committed to the thorough investigation of any allegation of intimidation or misconduct,’’ DOC spokesperson Cara Savelli said.
Joel Thompson, managing attorney for the Prison Legal Assistance Project at Harvard Law School, says distributing stimulus payments to people in prison will fulfil the federal law’s purpose of stimulating the economy.
“Knowing what we know about the socioeconomic status of prisoners and the families from which they come,’’ he said, “it’s actually more likely that stimulus money will be spent and not just thrown in the bank.”
Isabel Contreras is an intern at the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.