Bacon slams stimulus payments to prisoners, citing numbers from IRS

Prisoner advocates have said the funds help stabilize at-risk families

By: - September 2, 2022 5:45 am
U.S. Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

OMAHA — About $1.3 billion in COVID-19-related stimulus payments that Congress sent to Americans under two presidents reached people in prison.

The Internal Revenue Service confirmed the tally of stimulus payments to prisoners in a July response to a letter from U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.

The IRS response did not say how many inmates had received the payments in 2020 and 2021. It said 1.1 million stimulus payments were made to state and federal inmates.

Those payments started after a federal judge ruled in October 2020 that the IRS could not exclude prisoners from the payments, because Congress had not restricted inmates from receiving them.

In December 2020, House members, including Bacon, voted to fund a round of stimulus payments while approaching the end of former President Donald Trump’s term.

Asked about that vote, Bacon said, “We didn’t realize the … stimulus went to prisoners. When we did, we tried to do something about it.” Bacon said he learned about prisoners getting funds in early 2022.

In February, Bacon voted against the latest round of stimulus payments backed by President Joe Biden. House Republicans, including Bacon, supported an amendment to the American Rescue Plan Act under Biden to exclude prisoners. Democrats rejected it, however, and passed the bill, Bacon said.

Bacon described the payments to prisoners as “an example of the fiscal recklessness of Democrats.”

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, 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 economically well-off,” he said. “That helps them be able to talk with family, to be able to buy food and life essentials inside, to not burden their families.”

State Sen. Tony Vargas (Courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

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 living on fixed incomes.

And inmates, including those serving life sentences, are still Americans and human beings with rights, McKinney said. Over 90% of inmates will one day re-enter society, he pointed out.

“We’re either going to treat them as people, or they’re going to continue to cycle in and out,” McKinney said. 

Bacon said he wrote to the IRS after seeing a news story in February about the issue. He said he wanted more details, including how many death row inmates received the payments.

The IRS told him 163,000 stimulus payments had been sent to inmates serving life sentences without parole. IRS data doesn’t separate out inmates serving death sentences.

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Craig Chandler, University Communication)

“People on death row shouldn’t be getting a stimulus check,” Bacon said. “If you’re going to do anything with that, give it to their victims. … They (the inmates) are living off the taxpayer.”

Prisoner advocates nationally have argued that the additional funds sent to inmates help stabilize their families, already at risk because of having a loved one behind bars.

Tena Hahn Rodriguez, interim executive director of Omaha-based Black and Pink National, which argues that the prison system should be abolished, said prisoners and families need help.

“They have families that love them,” she said. “They work for pennies on the dollar. There’s no reason for them to be excluded or their children or their families to be excluded.”

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha, Bacon’s opponent in the 2nd Congressional District race, declined to weigh in on Bacon’s letter or whether state and federal prisoners should have received stimulus checks.

Vargas has criticized Bacon in recent months for voting against ARPA, which included stimulus funds. In a previous interview, Vargas said he would have supported the bill. 

Said Bacon: “If you voted for that, you voted for this.”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also spent several years as an assignment editor and worked two stints as an editorial writer. From 2005 to 2007, he served as communications director for then-Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman. Aaron most recently was the lead investigative reporter for KMTV 3 in Omaha, focusing on holding public officials accountable. His work has received awards from the Associated Press, Great Plains Journalism and more.

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