ORLANDO – Around this time of year, businesses start sending out W2 forms to their employees, listing how much they earned last year, so they can start the arduous task of figuring out how much they owe the federal government in taxes.  If they’re lucky, they may have overpaid and are expecting a refund.

Or they could be among the millions of Americans whose tax dollars go to support something else entirely: inmates in prison who file false tax forms to get refunds for work they didn’t do, and couldn’t have done behind they were behind bars.

Inmates in Florida prisons and county jails don't have access to computers or the Internet, so it's harder for them to file bous tax claims.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, has joined three of his colleagues on an effort to coinvince the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Internal Revenue Service to work together to enforce a 2008 law that stops this practice in state and federal prisons across the nation.

Nelson has been working on this effort since 2005, when he first asked Congress to investigate how widespread the problem of inmate tax scams is and to identify ways to safeguard the prison system so it will be difficult, if not impossible, for prisoners to cheat the government — and taxpayers.

As Nelson noted in a 2005 press release from his office, “Convicts should go to prison to pay their debts to society, not to rip off American taxpayers.”

Now the Florida senator has teamed up with Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, to put more teeth in that earlier effort. The scam is easy: Nelson’s office said prisoners typically use their own names or the names of their friends to file bogus tax claims in order to get refund checks.

In 2005, Nelson’s office reported that two inmates serving long sentences in Florida prisons for murder got some help from a few outsiders, and filed phony tax returns that netted them refunds of about $5,000 from the IRS for wages they never earned. 

The Florida senator cited other examples: an inmate at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center filed a fake tax return for himself and 65 other inmates while serving time in 2002. Prosecutors later estimated that the scheme cost taxpayers more than $73,000.

A year later, the senator’s office noted, two inmates at the Carson City Correctional Facility in Michigan were sentenced to an additional 27 months in prison after authorities found out they had planned to file false tax returns on behalf of fellow prisoners.  The refunds they were expecting totaled more than $46,000. 

The senator said access to the Internet at correctional facilities across the country could be making it easier for inmates to file these phony returns.

Inmates don’t have similar online access in Florida’s state prisons or county jails, making it harder for inmates to scam the government. 

“State prison inmates do not have access to the Internet,” said Gretl Pressinger, public information officer for the Florida Department of Corrections.  “We have computers they can do typing on, and some computer classes, but they have no capability to go online.”

 As of June 2009, Florida had 146 prison facilities, including 62 major institutions, 45 work/forestry camps, one treatment center, 33 work release centers and five road prisons.  It costs the state $18,980 a year, or $52 a day, to feed, clothe, house and provide medical services for an inmate at a state facility, and $15,443 at a prison for adult males, the majority of people incarcerated in the Florida prison system.  Florida’s recidivism rate is 33 percent, meaning one of every three inmates released from a state prison returns there within three years.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prison’s Inmate Handbook, inmates are only allowed to spend up to $290 a month for purchases on their commissary account at the prison canteen. Once a month, each inmate account is “validated,” meaning that’s the start of their spending period.  Deposits to commissary accounts are made from outside sources, including family, friends and associates.

Prison Unit Managers can also approve withdrawals for the payment of fines, restitution for losses, and other financial obligations that include court or attorney fees and the purchase of legal books.

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