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Federal Judge Rules Prisoners Eligible for $1,200 Stimulus Checks; Application Deadline Extended to Nov. 21 for Online Filing

The same court has also laid out detailed guidelines for the government to follow to ensure that the incarcerated are not misinformed about their right to the stimulus.

It also forced the IRS to extend its paper-filing deadline to receive stimulus requests, since most people behind bars don’t have access to a computer and can’t take advantage of a later deadline previously granted to online filers. Prisoners and detainees originally had until October 15, 2020 to file by mail but that was extended until October 30. The deadline to file online, using the portal at, is November 21.

In her original September 24 order, Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of the 9th Circuit U.S. District Court certified a nationwide class of incarcerated individuals denied federal stimulus checks and granted them a preliminary injunction against the IRS and Treasury, stopping the agencies from blocking such payments and expediting previously denied payments.

Although many federal and state statutes bar current prisoners from enjoying certain government benefits, Judge Hamilton noted that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – passed by Congress in April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic derailed the global economy – does not. As a result, she said, the IRS administrative action blocking the payments did not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act by giving the public or affected individuals proper “notice and comment,” thereby rendering the agency action unenforceable.

The court then granted an injunction against the IRS, noting that the plaintiff members of the class were likely to prevail at trial.

The CARES Act provides one-time payments of $1,200 to individuals, $2,400 to married couples filing jointly and $500 for each child under age 17 at the end of 2019. The payments are technically a credit to filers’ 2020 income tax liability. Eligible filers include individuals earning less than $75,000 annually, or $112,500 for heads of households or $150,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The IRS sent payments first to people who had filed an income tax return for 2018 or 2019. By April 10, 2020, nearly 85,000 payments totaling about $100 million had been made to incarcerated people, according to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA).

Then, on May 6, 2020, the IRS announced that the payments to incarcerated people had been made in error and directed those who had received them to pay them back. The agency also advised officials in prisons and jails to intercept and return any payments sent to prisoners and detainees. That’s when prisoners began signing on to the class-action suit.

One of those plaintiffs is Colin Scholl, currently serving a sentence at a California state prison in Salinas Valley. He said the court “order communicates that we have value, that we have rights, and that itself is a win.  All of us are hurting during the pandemic, like our friends and family on the outside.” 

Another California plaintiff, Lisa Strawn, was exposed to COVID-19 before her release from San Quentin State Prison in July 2020. She said the “money means so much more” to trans women, “who do not receive the same services once out of prison as others.”

Meanwhile the IRS set an October 15 deadline for eligible recipients who had not recently filed a tax return to request a stimulus payment, also setting up an online system for them to do so. The deadline was later extended to November 21, but for online filers only. However, most prisoners lack computer access, throwing them under the earlier deadline to make a paper filing. In a follow-up ruling in early October, Judge Hamilton directed the IRS to extend that deadline another 15 days to October 30.

Now “we need to get the word out,” said Nina Olson, the executive director of the Center for Taxpayer Rights. “It is very important people not hesitate to file.”

The judge’s latest ruling ordered the IRS immediately to instruct employees staffing the agency’s hotline to cease telling the incarcerated they are ineligible for a stimulus payment. She also told the IRS to retract its instruction to intercept and return payments with a new letter to officials at prisons and jails – and the letter must affirmatively state that incarcerated people are permitted to file for and receive stimulus payments.

These extra steps the judge found necessary to enforce her original order directing the IRS by October 24, 2020, to “reconsider advance refund payments to those who are entitled to such payment based on information available in the IRS’s records (i.e., 2018 or 2019 tax returns), but from whom benefits have thus far been withheld, intercepted, or returned on the sole basis of their incarcerated status.”

That order set the same deadline for the agency to revive claims filed either through the “non-filer” online portal or otherwise that were previously denied solely on the basis of the claimant’s incarcerated status. The judge gave the agency until November 8, 2020, to “file a declaration confirming these steps have been implemented, including data regarding the number and amount of benefits that have been disbursed.”

The national prisoner class is represented by the San Francisco law firm of Leiff Cabraser. For specific information on how prisoners can get their stimulus check, visit this website:

See: Scholl v. Mnuchin, Case No. 20-cv-05309-PJH (N.D. Cal. Sep. 24, 2020). 


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Related legal case

Scholl v. Mnuchin