OMAHA — About $1.3 billion in COVID-19-related stimulus payments sent by Congress to Americans under two presidents reached people in prison.
The Internal Revenue Service confirmed total inmates on incentive payments in 2020 and 2021 in a July response to a letter from U.S. Representative Don Bacon, R-Neb.
The IRS response did not say how many inmates had received payments. It said 1.1 million incentive payments have been made to state and federal inmates since October 2020, after a judge ruled the payments were allowed because Congress had not restricted inmates from receiving them.
Bacon, who voted against the stimulus payments in February under President Joe Biden, described the payments to prisoners as “an example of Democrats’ fiscal recklessness.”
In December 2020, Bacon had voted in favor of stimulus payments during President Donald Trump’s administration. When asked about that vote, Bacon said, “We didn’t know that the first incentive went to prisoners. When we did that, we tried to do something about it.”
House Republicans, including Bacon, supported an amendment to the American Rescue Plan Act under Biden to exclude inmates. However, Democrats rejected it and passed the bill, Bacon said.
Omaha Secretary of State Terrell McKinney, who advocates respect for the rights of incarcerated people, said those stimulus dollars were worth spending on people in prison.
“A majority of them are not doing well economically,” he said. “That helps them to talk to family, to be able to buy food and necessities, not to burden their families.”
Families with loved ones in prison often struggle to support them behind bars, he said. Many of those family members are single parents or grandparents who live on a fixed income.
And inmates, including those serving life sentences, are still Americans and people with rights, McKinney said. More than 90% of inmates will one day re-enter society, he stressed.
“We’re either going to treat them like people, or they’re going to keep cycling in and out,” McKinney said.
Bacon said he wrote to the IRS after seeing a February news report on the matter. He said he wanted more details, including how many death row inmates received the payments.
The IRS told him that 163,000 stimulus payments had been sent to inmates serving life sentences without parole. IRS data does not separate prisoners serving death sentences.
“People on death row shouldn’t be given stimulus control,” Bacon said. “If you’re going to do something with that, give it to their victims. … They (the prisoners) live off the taxpayer.”
National prisoner advocates have argued that the additional funds sent to inmates help stabilize their families, who are already at risk because a loved one is behind bars.
Tena Hahn Rodriguez, interim director of the Omaha-based Black and Pink National, which advocates the abolition of the prison system, said inmates and families need help.
“They have families who love them,” she said. “They work for pennies on the dollar. There is no reason for them to be disfellowshipped, or to exclude their children or their families.”
Omaha state senator Tony Vargas, Bacon’s opponent in the 2nd Congressional District race, declined to comment on Bacon’s letter whether state and federal inmates should have received stimulus checks.
Vargas has criticized Bacon in recent months for voting against ARPA, which includes stimulus funds. In an earlier interview, Vargas said he would have supported the bill.
Bacon said, “If you voted for this, you voted for this.”