Volume 98, Number 1

April 2023

Bolstering Benefits Behind Bars: Reevaluating Earned Income Tax Credit and Social Security Benefits Denials to Inmates

Belinda Lee

This Note describes how the tax system treats inmates, an intersection that has
been relatively understudied by both tax and criminal justice scholars. The Note
provides a detailed account of how inmates earn income through prison labor
(what goes in) and the benefits denied to inmates (what comes out, or rather what
often does not come out). The Note then asks why the tax system denies inmates
Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Social Security benefits. Traditional tax
principles of equity, efficiency, and administrability do not justify the denials. This
Note argues that the underlying culprit is that the tax system is being used to levy
additional punishment on inmates. This has particularly insidious effects on communities
of color given the connections between mass incarceration, poverty, and
race. The Note proposes statutory repeal of the benefits exclusions and mandatory
filing for inmates as a way of making the tax system better reflect the economic and
social realities that inmates face, while simultaneously moving the system closer to
fundamental tax principles.