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At the request of the IRS, the Montana Department of Corrections intercepted and returned 56 stimulus checks sent to inmates from the federal government as part of coronavirus relief efforts.

At the end of March, the Treasury Department and the IRS began distributing checks worth up to $1,200 to Americans from a coronavirus aid bill approved by Congress. That money was meant to help during the COVID-19 pandemic and the amount doled out to a person was based on the person’s previous tax filings.

In April, the IRS asked the state’s correction department to return checks sent to inmates at state correctional facilities, said Carolynn Bright, spokeswoman for the corrections department. She said the corrections department has returned 56 checks since.

“This has been an ongoing process,” Bright said in an email. “All checks arriving at DOC facilities are received by accounting staff, and those staff members are responsible for identifying and returning the EIP checks to the IRS.”

Of the checks returned, Bright said, 47 were meant for inmates at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge and five were for inmates at the Montana Women’s Prison in Billings. The corrections department intercepted four checks headed to inmates at the Pine Hills Correctional Facility in Glendive.

Bright said the checks are returned to the IRS as they are received. She said the corrections department has not kept track of the amount of each check.

Amy Barton, spokeswoman for the Montana State Prison, said the corrections department intercepted all checks to inmates at all its facilities. As of Thursday, Barton said, the state prison’s population was 1,489 inmates. Pine Hills Correctional Facility had 88 adult inmates and 44 juvenile inmates. The Montana Women’s Prison held 197 inmates.

David Tucker, spokesman for the IRS, pointed to a section on the IRS’ website that cites the Social Security Act as the reason for inmates being disqualified from receiving the federal money. The website said spouses of those incarcerated are allowed to keep their payout of the stimulus money.

Tucker was unable to say why the IRS had only taken 56 stimulus checks from Montana inmates.

Kelly Erb, a tax attorney, told the Associated Press that asking for the money back had no legal basis.

“It’s not a rule just because the IRS puts it on the website,” Erb told the AP. “In fact, the IRS actually says that stuff on its website isn’t legal authority. So there’s no actual rule — it’s just guidance — and that guidance can change at any time.”

Pippa Browde, a professor specializing in tax law at the University of Montana, said it’s hard to know if checks were properly issued to those inmates. There are lots of situations when the IRS would ask for money back, she said, like a dead person receiving aid and potentially fraudulent requests for the stimulus money.

“It’s hard to know without knowing the eligibility requirements for the specific types of payments … and the facts of each individual case,” Browde said.

S.K. Rossi, policy director with the ACLU of Montana, said inmates and their families are suffering disproportionally from the virus. Rossi said few vulnerable people have been released from the state’s prison since the pandemic struck the state.

Rossi said it is cruel for the government to take money away from families of incarcerated people who could use the support.

“COVID relief should not be kept from people just because they are in prison,” Rossi said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.