WARREN — Gov. Janet Mills has ordered the Maine Department of Labor to stop paying unemployment benefits, including the additional $600 per week provided during the COVID-19 pandemic, to state prisoners who participated in work-release programs.

“I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, I also do not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) payment,” Mills said in a letter Friday to Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

The letter was part a package of information sent to the The Courier-Gazette in Rockland under a Freedom of Access request. The newspaper has been seeking information from the Labor and Corrections departments about inmates receiving unemployment benefits for the past two weeks.

The inmates who have been receiving the benefits had been working jobs outside the prison through work-release programs. When businesses began closing because of the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, inmates were laid off from their jobs and began applying for and receiving unemployment benefits.

“While work release offers inmates a valuable opportunity to learn life skills, support local employers, and earn a salary that can be used to pay restitution to victims, it is a privilege – not a right – and any inmate who loses that privilege for whatever reason should not have access to our limited public benefits system,” Mills said in the letter.

She said that particularly during a public health crisis state benefits should be reserved and prioritized for the thousands of Maine people who are struggling to pay for basic necessities such as rent, food and utilities – expenses inmates do not have while incarcerated.

Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman had received a memo from the Attorney General’s Office stating that it was legal for inmates to receive benefits.

The governor ordered Liberty, the corrections commissioner, to provide the Labor Department with a list of all inmates who have been receiving benefits and to place all the unemployment benefits in a separate trust account. It wasn’t clear Tuesday night how many inmates received the benefits.

The Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston and the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham have work-release programs in the Maine Corrections system.

Only inmates who are classified as “community custody,” the lowest security classification, are eligible to participate in corrections department work-release programs.

There were 21 inmates from Bolduc who were working at jobs outside the facility, the department said.

The corrections department website says that Charleston prison has a robust work-release program where prisoners work at local farms and for other area employers.

The corrections department takes 20 percent to 25 percent of wages received by prisoners for room, board and transportation. Inmates who have to pay for their own transportation have 10 percent removed from their pay.


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