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How do inmates get stimulus checks? Well, it depends on a lot of factors

How do inmates get stimulus checks? Well, it depends on a lot of factors


Despite efforts to stop it, it looks like jail inmates and prisoners — of which there are approximately 2.3 million nationwide, equaling nearly 1% of the U.S. population — are going to be receiving stimulus checks of up to $1,400 each from the federal government in the third round of coronavirus stimulus, signed into law on March 11 by President Joe Biden.

But simply being in jail or prison does not guarantee that those who are incarcerated will be getting money.

When the checks show up

Inmates in the Racine County Jail, for example, who will be mailed a stimulus check will have their money submitted by the jail into the individual’s trust account. That money can be made available to inmates to spend on things like phone calls and video chats with loved ones on the outside, said Lt. James Evans, the Racine County Sheriff’s Office public information officer.

Not all checks are mailed to the correctional institutions, however.

According to John Beard, director of communications for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, some checks are mailed to the prisons “but not all.”

If a prisoner were to have an account with a traditional bank or credit union on the outside, the money can be deposited from the federal government into the accounts — as it would be for most Americans.

But those inmates won’t have access to that money. It is illegal for people in prison to access their assets until they are released, although they can assign others (such as family members, loved ones or legal representation) the ability to utilize those assets.

For those who have their residence listed as the incarceration facility, the checks would be mailed to the prison, then deposited by the prison into what is called a trust account, similar to what happens in the Racine County Jail. The Motley Fool defines a trust account as “essentially the bank account of an offender while they’re incarcerated. If they have a job in prison, their wages are typically deposited into that account, and if they need spending money — say, for snacks, personal care products, postage and other items — they get that from the fund, too.”

HUDSON: "We're going to kill you through incarceration. We're going to kill you by sucking the very life out of you through incarceration, through the oppression of incarceration, through putting you in an environment where hope is around you, but not in you. That's what life without the possibility of parole says."As the inmate population has exploded in the U.S., so, too, has the number of people facing life imprisonment.According to a new study by the Sentencing Project, one in seven U.S. prisoners is serving a life sentence or "virtual life" sentence, meaning more than 50 years. If you narrow that to Black inmates, the number jumps to one in five. In total, about 203,000 Americans are set to die behind bars. In 1970, there were less than 200,000 people in America's entire prison system. Renaldo Hudson has had a whirlwind of a life, experiencing the highest highs and the lowest lows the criminal justice system has to offer. Hudson was sentenced to death for a crime he fully admits to committing. He confessed to robbing, stabbing and ultimately killing a neighbor in his apartment complex nearly 40 years ago. Hudson turned his life around after a stint in solitary confinement. He said all he had to listen to was a Walkman tape player.HUDSON: "On this tape, he was talking about who are you good for? Or are you good for nothing? Can anybody trust you? If you were to die today? Would anyone care?"After that point, Hudson got his GED then a bachelor's degree in a Christian studies. He severed ties with gangs in the prison and went on to create his own mentorship program called Building Blocks that boasts nearly 500 members.  HUDSON: "So you're absolutely correct when you said that my change wasn't predicated on me looking to be set free. It was completely motivated by me saying, 'I will not die with the world saying he was the most deserving of death.'"In 2003, with just two days left in office, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of all 160 inmates on death row to life without parole.Fast forward 17 years, the current governor, J. B. Pritzker, granted Hudson's clemency petition making him a free man for the first time in nearly four decades.HUDSON: "When I walked outside of that prison I breathed for the first time in 37 years."As one of very few who has received not one but two governor's pardons from the most severe punishments America has to offer, Hudson says the two aren't that different. HUDSON: "People don't like telling the truth about the death penalty, which says, 'We [the state] will pay for the poison to actually kill you.' Life without the possibility of parole says, 'We're going to kill you, and we'll just release you once you die.'"While public support for the death penalty has steadily fallen over the past 25 years, 60% of Americans support life imprisonment as a preferred alternative. And the number of people serving life without parole has jumped 66% since 2003. But advocates and many experts say that harsh sentences like life imprisonment don't actually serve as a deterrent to crime.For Hudson's part, he says he is living proof no one is irredeemable.  HUDSON: "I can't even act like I don't understand why society fears us. But we're more than that. We're also your brothers and your cousins and your uncles and your fathers. And many of us have come to a place to say, 'Hey, I'm sorry that I wasn't a better person. But I have the potential to be better.'" 

Not a simple process

To be eligible to receive the stimulus checks, people who are incarcerated must be U.S. citizens and cannot be listed as dependents on someone else’s tax form.

Those who are eligible also must file a claim to receive the money. As the Mississippi Center for Justice reported: Incarcerated applicants don’t need a bank account or provable income to get the check, but do need to provide information such as Social Security numbers and other personal information. Also, claimants also need to have filed a tax return in 2018 and/or 2019, or be able to prove they were exempt from filing a tax return.

Tax forms could be acquired by inmates, although there have been reports throughout the country of incarceration facilities not providing the forms to those who are locked up. There also are inmates who are unaware they could get the money and/or don’t know how to apply for it.

Last year, the IRS started withholding checks that otherwise would have been going to people who are locked up, but released them after a judge in October ruled the prisoners who are citizens should receive checks just like citizens who weren’t locked up.

Julian Bradley


For the inmates who have received stimulus checks from the first two rounds approved in 2020, a lot of that money never reached their accounts, with dollars from the initial $1,200 checks issued last year being garnished to pay off past debts, including child support and restitution.

Wisconsin state Rep. Julian Bradley, R-Franklin, has proposed requiring that inmates who owe restitution have their stimulus checks automatically used to pay off that debt.


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