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Officials worry federal stimulus checks for inmates could be linked to increase in contraband

Prison fence. State auditors say Michigan prisons could have saved millions in prescription costs.
Simon Brass
Prison fence. State auditors say Michigan prisons could have saved millions in prescription costs.

Thousands of Michigan prison inmates have been receiving federal stimulus payments during the pandemic.

The fear is that inmates have been using the money to get contraband from the outside, according to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Gautz said the department has recently found more weapons and drugs after it reinstated a more normal schedule of searches.

"So is that because there's been an influx of money, or is that because it had been there prior? It's hard to say," said Gautz. "But certainly it's our fear that it could lead to that. When you have this amount of money coming in, it certainly can lead to nefarious activity, whether that's trying to encourage people to bring drugs into the prison, or it's extorting other prisoners to get their money, so it can lead to big problems."

Gautz said on the other hand, there are also inmates who will use money that comes into their accounts for good purposes, such as supporting their families back home.

The Internal Revenue Service initially tried to stop the payments to prison inmates. But a federal judge ruled there's nothing in the CARES Act precluding them from getting the money.

Gautz said it's not clear if the $250 to $300 monthly per child tax credit payments that start July 15 will go to inmates who have children.

Not all of the federal stimulus payment amounts have been deposited in inmate accounts. The Michigan Department of Corrections has diverted some of the money for inmates' court-ordered restitution and other debts.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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