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GOP senators complain about inmates getting relief checks after voting for it twice

Republicans only objected to the practice after they lost the Senate and Joe Biden became president.

By Donna Provencher - March 18, 2021
Sen. Tom Cotton

Senate Republicans have been slamming Democrats for weeks about the fact that prison inmates are eligible to receive direct relief payments from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law last week. Every Republican in the House and Senate voted against the bill.

But in both the previous COVID relief packages passed last year by a Republican-controlled Senate and signed by Donald Trump — March’s CARES Act and December’s Consolidations Appropriations Act — prisoners were also eligible to receive stimulus checks. And these same senators, all of whom voted against Biden’s relief package, voted for the prior relief bills, without complaint.

Now they’re trying to paint prison eligibility as a terrible new idea cooked up by Democrats.

Scott proposed a bill that would reverse the decision to send checks to inmates and prevent the practice. It was blocked by Senate Democrats.

“Today, I introduced a bill on the Senate Floor to reverse the Democrats’ reckless decision to spend BILLIONS in taxpayer money on stimulus checks to state and federal inmates. @SenateDems blocked it. Americans deserve better,” Sen. Rick Scott (FL) tweeted Wednesday. Democrats blocked Scott’s bill to exclude prisoners from eligibility.

A March 6 amendment to the American Rescue Plan, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy (LA), would have prevented inmates from receiving the $1,400 direct payment most Americans qualified for. “This spending should be on real needs,” Cassidy said. “Stimulus checks for inmates is nontargeted, inappropriate, and a total waste of money.” The amendment was shot down by Democrats 50-49.

Earlier this month, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton also decried the decision to include inmates in eligibility requirements, calling it a “crazy” Democratic idea.

“Look how crazy some of the Democratic ideas are,” he said in a Fox News appearance. “They had a chance on Saturday morning to stop checks from going to prisoners, from going to the Boston bomber, for instance, and on that vote, they declined. Every single Democrat wanted to continue the practice of sending checks to prisoners.”

But critics were swift to point out that Cotton had voted for two previous COVID relief packages. Scott and Cassidy voted for both packages as well.

And they weren’t the only Republicans to criticize the practice who voted for it under Trump.

Sens. John Cornyn (TX), Marco Rubio (FL), John Kennedy (LA), Lindsey Graham (SC), Tim Scott (SC), and John Thune (SD) also criticized Democrats for sending direct payments to prisoners.

“Just when you think this abomination of a partisan Trojan horse spending binge couldn’t get more ridiculous, it does: Ds vote for stimulus checks for prison inmates,” tweeted Cornyn. “Definitely not a #CovidReliefBill. Less than 10% COVID-19 related. Less than 1% for vaccines.”

But, with the exception of Thune, who did not vote on the CARES Act and voted only for December’s Consolidations Appropriation Act, the rest of these senators voted for both relief packages last year, thereby sending stimulus checks to inmates.

Moreover, none of them raised a word of concern about the practice when it occurred under Trump.

Eligibility for the first relief package was deliberately kept broad, requiring only legal citizenship, having filed a tax return, and having no disqualifying factors such as having been claimed as a dependent by someone else — in contrast to 2009’s Obama-era stimulus checks, which prohibited checks for most prisoners.

However, numerous outlets have noted that the same Republicans complaining now could have amended last year’s Consolidations Appropriations Act to preclude such payments to prisoners, when Republicans still controlled the Senate and the White House. They chose not to.

A lengthy battle was already waged in the courts in 2020 between inmates and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over prisoners’ eligibility to receive CARES Act direct payments, with the IRS first allowing the checks and then attempting to recall them. A federal judge ruled in October that inmates were eligible to receive the payments and extended the tax filing deadline.

Prisoner rights’ advocacy groups such as Prison Abolition & Prisoner Support made efforts to get thousands of tax packets into American prisons to enable inmates to file and receive the payments, but were blocked by many prisons, the Marshall Project reported.

One prisoner wrote to the outlet, “When an inmate is in [solitary] they do not have email, electronic bulletin board, or printing access, so inmates nationwide are being denied the ability to file for the stimulus check.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said this month that barring inmates from stimulus checks would only unnecessarily punish their families.

“Given the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system, this would cause the most harm to Black and brown families and communities already harmed by mass incarceration. Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated,” he said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

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