A federal court in California has ruled that prison and jail inmates are eligible to receive federal stimulus payments under the $2.2 trillion federal CARES Act, and Hawaii corrections officials are now distributing forms for prisoners to use to file for the payments.

U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued an injunction in a lawsuit on Oct. 14 that prohibits U.S. Department of Treasury officials from withholding stimulus payments from prisoners “on the sole basis of their incarcerated status.”

The economic impact payments of $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 for each qualified child under age 17 were authorized under the CARES Act, which provided relief to businesses and individuals suffering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Halawa Correctional Facility inmates move along on main street back to their module.

Halawa Correctional Facility inmates move along on “main street” inside the prison. The Department of Public Safety says it has already provided most Halawa inmates with the forms they need to file for federal stimulus payments of $1,200 each.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The U.S. Treasury made payments to about 85,000 inmates under the CARES Act in April, but then began withholding stimulus payments to prisoners. In many cases the Internal Revenue Service attempted to claw back the payments it had already made to inmates.

But since Hamilton’s ruling that inmates are eligible for the payments in the class action lawsuit in California, the IRS has been delivering forms to correctional facilities to distribute to prisoners to use to file for the payments.

Hawaii Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said the state prisons and jails here will distribute the forms to inmates at every facility, and said the department will collect the completed documents by the deadline to file, which is Wednesday.

Hawaii is holding about 2,600 men and women at in-state prisons or on the mainland as well as more than 1,500 inmates in state-run jails. It is not known how many of those inmates will actually qualify for the payments.

Supporters of the payments to prisoners said the money will help inmates to buy shampoo, paper, stamps or other goods they need from the prison commissary. It will also help inmates who are about to be released to support themselves or their families while they look for work, since Hawaii no longer provides “gate money,” or cash payments to inmates upon release.

But making payments to prisoners under the CARES Act was immediately criticized by House Republicans. State Rep. Bob McDermott said he can see how the U.S. Congress might have overlooked the possibility that inmates would qualify for the payments in the rush to pass the CARES Act last spring.

“Paying them stimulus while they’re in prison for crimes — violent crimes — seems a bit insane to me,” McDermott said. “These people should be getting punished and rehabilitated, and not given cash rewards. You lose that privilege, in my view.

“Imagine a guy who’s a rapist who’s in there, and then we’re going to give him a cash bonus. I mean, you just scratch your head when you see what the hell is going on. It makes no sense,” he said.

But Kat Brady, coordinator for the Community Alliance on Prisons, said the prisoners have a right to the payments by law, and compared it to the right to vote.

“This is a federal decision, and you’ve got to do it, period. There’s no discussion, no negotiation, you’ve got to hand out the stuff to every person who is a citizen,” she said.

“Not only are (they) incarcerated people citizens and eligible for the CARES Act funds, these people are living in these petri dishes of infection, and unlike the community, they cannot find a safe place to hunker down,” she said.

The largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the state so far was at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, where more than 400 inmates and 100 staff members have tested positive.

Supporters of the payments said the money will help inmates to buy shampoo, paper, stamps or other goods they need from the prison commissary and help inmates who are about to be released to support themselves or their families while they look for work.

Brady expressed concern that the deadline to file to claim the stimulus payments is quickly approaching, and the correctional system may be moving too slowly on distributing the forms the inmates must complete to be paid.

Inmates at Maui Community Correctional Center and Kulani Correctional Facility have received the forms and returned them, but it is unclear how much progress other Hawaii facilities have made, Brady said.

At Halawa Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison, the forms are being held at the prison law library, but inmates have only limited access to the library, she said.

“We’re really concerned because people need to get the forms,” she said.

Schwartz said in a written statement Wednesday that Halawa inmates are each being summoned to the library to sign for their forms, and all of the inmates at the medium security portion of the prison have received the documents. She said distribution is still underway at the special needs portion of the prison.

Brady also expressed concern about reports that staff members at Saguaro Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, are incorrectly telling prisoners that they do not qualify for the stimulus payments, and are taking back forms that had already been distributed.

But Amanda Gilchrist, director of public affairs for Saguaro operator CoreCivic, said in a written statement Thursday that the prison staff “has distributed the proper forms to all (Hawaii) inmates and will collect the completed documents by the November 4 deadline.”

Hawaii is holding 1,082 Hawaii inmates at the privately run Arizona prison because there is no room for them in Hawaii correctional facilities.

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