Prisoners Should Get $1,200 Coronavirus Checks, Ayanna Pressley Says

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Massachusetts U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley has come out in favor of giving $1,200 coronavirus stimulus checks to inmates in prisons.

A federal judge in northern California appointed by President Bill Clinton recently ruled that the Trump administration must stop withholding coronavirus checks from prisoners because the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act does not explicitly exclude them.

Judge Phyllis Hamilton also certified a class action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners who have not received checks from the federal government.

Pressley (D-Dorchester), who represents the Seventh Congressional District in Massachusetts, applauded the ruling in a tweet Friday, October 9.

“Yes, incarcerated individuals are entitled to the same $1,200 stimulus payments that millions of other Americans received,” Pressley wrote. “This administration must pay them what they owe them.”


The federal Internal Revenue Service has determined that more than 84,000 prisoners were issued payments earlier this year totaling about $100 million as of May 2020, according to a report by the U.S. Treasury Department.

The Trump administration this past spring decided that prisoners should not receive the payments, and ordered them to be returned.

On August 1, two state prisoners in California sued the federal government in U.S. District Court in Northern California, seeking the payments.

The initial complaint in the federal case, which is known as Scholl v. Mnuchin, suggested that the class action lawsuit may represent a large number of people.

“The exact size of the class is unknown. However, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2018, there were approximately 1,465,158 people imprisoned in state or federal facilities, over 90% of whom were U.S. citizens. Thus, the class size is over 1.5 million individuals,” the complaint states.

The lead plaintiffs in the case are Colin Scholl, a prisoner in California doing 20 years for grand theft (according to an online magazine he contributes to); and Lisa Strawn, a biological male who identifies as a woman who was released from San Quentin State Prison in July 2020 while doing a three-strikes-and-your-out life sentence for burglary. Strawn, who was known to prison authorities as Thomas Strawn, described in an online recording being released from prison after testing positive for coronavirus.

Prison inmates need coronavirus checks to help pay for items from the prison commissary, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued in their August 1 complaint.

“The spending of people under confinement is largely focused on life essentials like food and hygiene, and often is reliant on support from people on the outside as prison incomes are too low to cover average costs,” the prisoners’ complaint states.

The complaint cites a May 2018 study finding that people imprisoned in Massachusetts, for instance, spend an average of $11.7 million a year on prison commissaries — or more than $1,200 per year per prisoner.

The breakdown is as follows:

Ready Food                                                 $   351
Snack Food                                                 $   277
Beverages                                                   $   165
Hygiene and Health                                 $    96
Ingredients (Food)                                   $    92
Condiments                                               $    55
Mail and Stationary                                 $    48
Electronics                                                $    35
Clothing                                                    $    28
Household Goods and Supplies          $    28
Unknown / Unclassified                       $    32

Total                                                          $ 1,207


The study, by Stephen Raher at, notes that prisons “are notorious for serving small portions of unappealing food.”

Prisoners on average spend more than they make in prison jobs, the study found. The difference is often made up by family and friends.

In Massachusetts, a typical prisoner earns between $5 and $10 per week, though some in pre-release programs a prisoner may make as much as $35 a week, according to For most prisoners in Massachusetts, half of their earnings are deducted for forced savings for when they get out.

On September 24, Judge Hamilton, 68, a former public defender appointed a federal district court judge by President Clinton in 2000, issued an order defining prison inmates as a class for the purposes of pursuing coronavirus checks in court and ordering U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to stop withholding coronavirus stimulus payments from prisoners “on the sole basis of their incarcerated status.”

The judge’s over overturns the Trump administration’s policy, at least for the time being.

“The Judge’s order will thus result in desperately needed economic assistance of over $100 million to be delivered to members of the Class,” states a press release from Equal Justice Society, which advocates on behalf of prisoners, dated September 28.

On Wednesday, October 7, the judge ordered the Internal Revenue Service to change the language on its web site stating that prisoners are not eligible for coronavirus checks and to contact inmates individually by U.S. mail by Thursday, October 15 notifying them of their eligibility for payments.

Lawyers for the government on Friday, October 9 filed a motion for a stay of the order, arguing that complying with the mailing requirement of the judge’s order in the timeframe envisioned “is practically impossible.”

The federal government is also appealing the judge’s rulings on substantive grounds. Lawyers for the government filed notice of appeal on Thursday, October 8.