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Incarcerated Californians Are Still Struggling to Collect Their Stimulus Payments

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A man stands outside holding his hands wearing a hat and blue shirt that says "Assurance."
Robert Abeyta in Castro Valley on Dec. 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In the summer of 2020, Robert Abeyta was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and admitted into Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County.

“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and really could have gotten out very quickly if I had the financial resources,” said Abeyta.

Abeyta is 39 and grew up in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. He said he was completely broke at the time of his arrest. But even though his bank account was empty, there were resources available that he could have used to post bail and return to his life on the outside. He just couldn’t access them.

These resources are economic impact payments initially established by the CARES Act, and, even though incarcerated people are eligible for this money, their fight to get it started almost as soon as it became available to them. Nearly two years later, some people are still waiting. KQED has spoken with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, advocates, attorneys and detention facility staff to better understand how this happened.

The law and the lawsuit

In the early days of the pandemic, Congress passed the CARES Act, a more than $2 trillion aid package meant to provide a lifeline to the many Americans whose worlds got turned inside out by the pandemic.

Part of this package included stimulus payments, which have since been expanded, and add up to around $3,200 per individual. The stimulus money is distributed by the IRS, so to get it, you had to have filed a tax return. The eligibility requirements for these funds are quite broad: Essentially, if you are a citizen or permanent resident, you aren’t a dependent for tax purposes and you don’t make over $75,000 for individuals, you should qualify.

Shortly after the CARES Act passed, in May of 2020, the IRS determined that incarcerated people weren’t eligible for the stimulus payments and asked over 950,000 incarcerated people to return more than $1 billion worth of payments the IRS had already distributed.

“Prison authorities around the country took note of that and started to treat any attempt by somebody in their custody to apply for or obtain those funds as some form of misconduct,” said Yaman Salahi, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco — even to the extent, Salahi said, that, “we were hearing from people who said, [they were] sent to the hole, which is solitary confinement, because [they] tried to do this, or all of [their] correspondence about this [had] been confiscated.”

Salahi helped argue the class action suit that would confirm incarcerated people are in fact eligible for the stimulus payments initially established by the CARES Act.

“When we took a look at the issue, we determined that the IRS's position was almost certainly unlawful because it had no basis in the law that Congress passed,” said Salahi.

A judge agreed, and in October of 2020, the IRS reversed its policy and again began issuing the checks to incarcerated people.

The barriers

Robert Abeyta went into jail in July of 2020, so the doubt the IRS raised about eligibility and the back and forth it caused happened while he was incarcerated.

“Even though we were eligible to receive those checks, the jail would not receive the checks," said Abeyta. "They would send them back. The checks or the debit cards, didn't matter. They’d send them back to the Treasury Department."

Dean White, who served as programs supervisor of the Inmate Services Unit at Santa Rita Jail, confirmed that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office did have a policy against receiving tax refund money. This meant that people at Santa Rita needed to find a third party to receive payments on their behalf to avoid having them be returned to the IRS.

Abeyta said, “It was very, very messy because, you know, not everybody has the social support to have, you know, somebody offer an address for them to use to file their taxes."

But even getting this far was a feat. Abeyta didn’t have H&R Block or even the internet, and he could only use the phone for set periods of time.

And, if the forms got flagged by the IRS, trying to get through to figure out what happened and how to fix it felt nearly impossible with the wait times on the agency phone lines. It wasn’t easy to stay hopeful and persistent, Abeyta said.

“The driving factor was just believing in what we were doing. It's really hard when you're in a cage all the time … there's something about that environment that really exhausts a person,” he said.

Abeyta said one saving grace was consistent support from advocates on the outside, like the Santa Rita Jail Hotline, an affiliate of the National Lawyers Guild’s San Francisco/Bay Area chapter, who gave support over the phone and helped distribute explainer packets with the filing forms.

Salahi from Lieff Cabreser said, after the class action confirmed incarcerated people were eligible for the stimulus, the courts also told the IRS it was obligated to send notices to incarcerated people confirming they were eligible, and to officials at detention facilities explaining the same, and asking them not to interfere with the process.

But Santa Rita's White said, as of December 2021, the facility has never heard directly from the IRS about the stimulus funds. White said he and his colleagues became aware of their residents' eligibility through the advocacy group Bay Area Legal Aid.

If they've committed crimes, why should I care if they get their money?

Abeyta, and many other incarcerated folks seeking out these funds, have committed serious crimes, so many people may not be sympathetic about them struggling to get their money.

Nick Gregoratos, who directs the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office’s unique in-house advocacy department, Prisoner Legal Services, gets it. But, he also says, “Ninety-nine percent of the people here in our jail right now are not convicted of a crime. They're awaiting trial.” Gregoratos says those waits have gotten even longer during the pandemic.

His colleague, Nubia Aguilera, pointed out that the funds can also go to offset basic amenities incarcerated people need in prisons, which, under normal circumstances, they would likely buy with money from friends and family on the outside. Because of the pandemic, these friends and family may not have enough resources to go around even at home, much less to send out to support folks inside.

And the people locked up aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from these funds, Aguilera said: “I know a lot of them have been, you know, filling out release forms to let their money go to family.”

One of the incarcerated people whom Aguilera and Gregoratos have supported through this process is 64-year-old Vincent Jacobo from San Francisco. He’s been incarcerated in the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno for a little over eight years, awaiting trial for murder.

Jacobo had never filed taxes before he submitted a return to get his stimulus money, so it was easier for his checks to get snagged, because the IRS didn’t have a previous record of him.

Jacobo said he didn’t want the money for himself: “The only thing I would do is spend it all on commissary. So I released it to a friend of mine here and he put it in Western Union and sent it, I've sent it down to help my kids.”

Jacobo’s daughter and grandchildren live in Southern California. When he finally got his money, Jacobo says, they were able to pay down bills and rent.

“I was just happy that I could help them because I've never done anything for them before in my life. So it was, yeah, I was happy I could do something for them,” he said.

In December of 2020, Robert Abeyta, back at Santa Rita Jail, finally got his money. His bail was a little over a thousand dollars, he said, so getting his stimulus money also meant getting his freedom. In California, it costs about $94 a day to jail a person, so state taxpayers likely doled out over $14,000 to cover Abeyta's time in lockup while he waited for federal money he was due. 

His public defender, Joseph Goldstein-Breyer, said Abeyta has used the extra time on the outside to start turning his life around: "Since he was out of custody, Mr. Abeyta had the opportunity to jump through so many hoops to get his life together. I had a laundry list I could bring to the district attorney to say, 'Don't interrupt this wonderful, healthy momentum he has.'"

In the year that Abeyta has been out of jail, said Goldstein-Breyer, he has enrolled in treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues. He has also been hired as an agent for a government support program to distribute what are colloquially known as "Obamaphones" to people with lower incomes.

A man wearing a hat and blue shirt holding a device stands next to a white SUV with a sign that reads "Assurance" and the trunk opened.
Robert Abeyta helps people sign up for Assistance Wireless, a government program to supply free phone plans to people with lower incomes, in Castro Valley on Dec. 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Abeyta is taking biology and history classes at Coastline College and has had his driver’s license restored. “At first, he was renting a car to get to all of these commitments, and then, because of saving money through work and improving his credit score, he was able to buy a 2019 Kia Niro, which he’s so proud of,” Goldstein-Breyer added.

Last week, Abeyta resolved his most recent charge without receiving additional jail time.

Where are we now?

According to Santa Rita Jail's Dean White, as of the end of August 2021, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is no longer returning stimulus payments it receives on behalf of people incarcerated there. That means, for about 10 months after the class action suit confirmed that people locked up were eligible for this money, those incarcerated at Santa Rita were still having to use workarounds to get their money.

White says the jail also established a hotline connecting its residents with tax assistance volunteers through the Alameda County Social Services Agency.

According to advocates at Bay Area Legal Aid, after considerable back and forth between their team and officials at Santa Rita, the jail set up a process to give people more flexibility around phone use, and to allow them to use a fax machine to send documents to the IRS if they have gotten stuck on hold three times for 45 minutes. Santa Rita's White corroborated the details of the current process, with slight adjustments, saying the residents needed to be stuck on hold for an hour and that Santa Rita would lend them support by emailing the IRS as well.

Advocates at the Santa Rita Jail Hotline also say they are no longer receiving regular calls from people incarcerated there about stimulus payment issues.

Gregoratos at the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office says his office has been receiving checks on behalf of folks incarcerated in the county throughout the pandemic. To date, they have assisted over 200 people in getting their money and have released about 100 payments to family members of those incarcerated.

There are currently around 150,000 people incarcerated in California prisons and jails. This reporting represents experiences of people only in county jails; it does not speak to how folks in state prisons have fared. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told KQED it is not tracking how many incarcerated people have received payments.

"I think it would be really helpful to have some transparency about what the current status is of the backlog. If the IRS thinks it needs more resources to get through that expeditiously, then I think it would be good for the public to know that and for Congress to act," said Lieff Cabreser’s Salahi.

For incarcerated people who have yet to pursue the funds, Salahi said the IRS has said it will still accept their tax returns. For those who've already submitted returns, it's unclear how many haven’t gotten their stimulus money, but, he said, his office continues to get calls and letters almost daily from people still waiting for their money.

"We're getting into almost two years after the first set of stimulus payments were passed and authorized by Congress. The whole point, and it's in the law that Congress passed, was to have the IRS issue [the payments] as rapidly as possible. And I think two years later is not rapid," he said.



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