WARREN — Maine inmates who were forced to stop doing work release jobs because of the coronavirus outbreak were paid nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits before Gov. Janet Mills ordered the payments halted last week.

Fifty-three inmates were paid a total of $198,767 in jobless benefits – an average of $3,750 each – after the Department of Corrections stopped allowing them to participate in work release jobs in mid-March to reduce the risk of spreading the virus among the prison population, a department spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Those benefits, minus money the department takes out for room and board and to pay any reimbursements owed by inmates as part of their sentences, was placed into a trust account for the inmates. The department takes 20 percent to 25 percent of wages received by prisoners to pay for room, board, and transportation.

No decision has been made on whether the state will try to recoup the money, said Anna Black, the department’s director of government affairs.

The corrections department asked the Maine Department of Labor in March whether inmates participating in work release jobs are eligible for unemployment benefits.

The labor department consulted with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowksi, who said the inmates were eligible because it was the corrections department’s decision to halt the work release programs. Macirowski sent a letter to that effect to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman on April 29.

The governor’s office was made aware of the payments by Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty at the end of April, according to Mills’ press secretary, Lindsay Crete.

Twenty-one inmates at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren had work-release jobs outside the facility. Photo by uniquemainefarms.com via Courier-Gazette

Mills sent a letter to Liberty on May 15 stating she had ordered the payments stopped. The governor ordered Liberty to provide the labor department with a list of all inmates who received benefits and to place all the payments in a trust account.

“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’ letter to Liberty stated.

The letter was part a package of information obtained under a Freedom of Access request.

“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.

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

The Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston and the Southern Maine Women’s Re-entry Center in Windham have work release programs. Only inmates who are classified as “community custody,” the lowest security classification, are eligible to participate.

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