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THE UNITED STATES’ Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is struggling to reclaim Covid-19 relief payment cheques it accidentally sent to prisoners across the country.
The $2.2 trillion (£1.8tn) coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March authorised direct payments to US citizens, with cheques of up to $1,200 (£960) being sent to people who completed tax returns in the last two fiscal years.
The IRS realised within a fortnight that many cheques were sent to prison inmates and has asked state penal departments and prison authorities to intercept and return them. But the sheer number of prisons in the US means that it is struggling to assess whether all are co-operating. The US has the highest prison population in the world, both absolutely and as a proportion of its population, and accounts for more than 20 per cent of the global prison population despite having less than 5 per cent of the total population.
But tax experts say it has no legal right to the money, since the original legislation did not specifically exclude prisoners. “The IRS is just making this up,” said Prison Policy Initiative’s Wanda Bertram, adding that many prisoners or their families need the money, especially as many institutions have released inmates under special conditions due to Covid-19.
The IRS admits that it “can’t give the legal basis” for demanding the money back but says that the same rules apply to the payments as apply to payments under the Social Security Act, which excludes incarcerated people. But tax lawyer Kelly Erb said that it was being “disingenuous” and the Social Security Act was unrelated.
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