By: Joel Thompson, Joan Steffen, Marta Canneri, and Will Ossoff

On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which offered crucial relief to American families struggling with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Six months later, people in prison and jail can finally receive that relief as well. On September 24, 2020, in response to a lawsuit filed by the law firm Lieff Cabraser and the Equal Justice Society, a federal district judge in California ordered the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to make CARES Act stimulus payments available to people in prison and jail. Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued a preliminary injunction requiring the IRS and Treasury to stop blocking such payments and expedite payments previously denied, concluding, “plaintiffs and those similarly situated are being deprived basic necessities such as communication with loved ones, food, and hygiene products. Because they often exist on the margins of the economy and struggle to acquire basic necessities, the harm suffered by these individuals cannot be adequately remedied with later monetary relief.”

Since then, PLAP and other advocates have set to work disseminating the word and trying to make the process accessible and available to incarcerated individuals. PLAP Policy Director Joan Steffen took the lead on drafting a CARES Act info sheet for incarcerated individuals, which PLAP is now mailing to all individuals who request it.  

In response to our efforts to disseminate this information, some have questioned whether incarcerated individuals are as entitled to CARES Act relief as other Americans. Critics of the September 24th order tend to pose their concern in the form of a question: how will these payments actually stimulate the economy? The same question could be asked about the payments made to people outside of prison, of course. There is a risk, in even asking this question, that we continue to legitimize the usual myths:  

MYTH: Incarcerated people, by virtue of their convictions and prison sentences, are bad and undeserving, while all other people, whatever wrongs they might have committed in their lives, are good and deserving.

If we wanted to stimulate the economy but wanted a moral litmus test so that only the worthy people among us received stimulus checks, relying on incarceration is an inaccurate, and racist, way to do that sorting. We are not living in an old western movie. An incarcerated person is more than the act that led to her incarceration, and at the same time a person can cause a lot of harm to others, yet never go to prison for it. Let’s not pretend that our criminal legal system handles all societal wrongdoing equitably. And let’s not decry systemic racism in the abstract, but pretend it doesn’t exist when it comes time to write a check.

MYTH: Incarcerated people are loners, devoid of family, friends, or loved ones.

People in prison have spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends. Their loved ones may need help with the rent, groceries, and gas money (including to visit them; the visiting rooms have reopened in some facilities), just like everyone else. Knowing what we know about the socioeconomic status of people in prison and the families from which they come, it’s actually more likely that stimulus money will be spent and not just thrown in the bank.  

MYTH: Our prison systems provide everything a person in prison could possibly need and more, for free.

It bears remembering how much people in prison — and their loved ones — pay for the few amenities made available to them. In her order, Judge Hamilton recognized that “[i]ncarcerated persons often cannot bear the entirety of costs associated with acquiring basic necessities in prison—food, hygiene, and communication. The remaining costs often fall on the families of the incarcerated.”  

Phone calls are charged at well above market rates in most prison systems.  Many prison systems now make email available — if the incarcerated individual can pay for the prison-approved tablet, and the fee charged for each email message.  People in prison and their loved ones continue to rely heavily on traditional mail to stay connected, which means paying for postage, envelopes, pen, and paper. During the systemwide lockdowns brought on by the pandemic, hot meals at the chow hall were replaced by meager, repetitive (and sometimes spoiled) cold foods delivered to cell, and incarcerated people have relied more than ever on buying food from the canteen, along with additional soap or other goods that have taken on increased importance for all of us in 2020. As with phone calls and email, people in prison buy canteen items at above-market prices.

In fact, stimulus funds sent to people in prison are most likely to end up in the hands of the many companies in this country whose entire business model is built around government contracts for exclusive services to jails and prisons. They enjoy a literally captive consumer base, and that lack of competition is reflected in their pricing and service quality. Many of these contracts call for a percentage of the revenues to be paid back to the jail or prison that hired them, as a “commission.” Bianca Tylek and her organization, Worth Rises (, provide more information about the industry that turns imprisonment into profit. A recent Boston Globe column also highlights the steep costs that phone calls from correctional facilities impose on people incarcerated in Massachusetts and their families. The sad fact, then, is that stimulus payments made to people in prison will be spent, even if those dollars do not go as far for incarcerated people as they do for everyone else.

Those who are concerned that their taxpayer dollars will not be reinvested in the economy by incarcerated people can thus rest easy. The real question is why it took so long for those who “exist on the margins of the economy and struggle to acquire basic necessities” to receive the same relief that their fellow Americans received months ago. 

If you or one of your loved ones is interested in applying for stimulus payment while incarcerated in a U.S. prison or jail, please check out PLAP’s CARES Act info sheet or Lieff Cabraser’s webpage dedicated to the lawsuit.

Joel Thompson is the Supervising Attorney of Harvard PLAP; Joan Steffen is a PLAP Policy Director; Marta Canneri and Will Ossoff are the PLAP Publicity and Communications Directors.