Maine inmates who could no longer participate in work release programs because of the COVID-19 outbreak were paid nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits before Gov. Janet Mills ordered a halt to the payments.

A Maine Department of Corrections spokeswoman said May 20 that 53 incarcerated individuals were paid $198,767 in unemployment benefits after they were prohibited from continuing their employment by the department. That averages out to $3,750 per inmate since mid-March.

That money, minus the funds taken out for room and board as well as any reimbursement owed, was placed into a trust account for the inmates.

No decision has been made about the recoupment of benefits, said Corrections Department Director of Government Affairs Anna Black.

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

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 the Corrections Department work-release program.

Black said the Corrections Department inquired to the Maine Department of Labor in March about whether individuals participating in the work release program would be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The Department of Labor reviewed the matter and consulted with the assistant attorney general assigned to the Labor Department. The department, in consultation with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowksi, determined the inmates would be eligible for benefits. A letter from Macirowski was sent to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman April 29.

The attorney said it was the Corrections Department's decision to have the workers stop working to prevent them from bringing the virus back to the facilities, thus quarantining the inmates. She said the inmates were eligible for benefits.

The governor’s office was made aware of the issue by Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty at the end of April, according to Mills' Press Secretary Lindsay Crete.

Mills sent a letter to Liberty May 15, where she stated she ordered the Labor Department 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' letter to Liberty stated.

The letter was part of an information package sent to the newspaper 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.

"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 stated in the letter.

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

Gov. Mills ordered the Corrections commissioner to provide the Labor Department with a list of all inmates who were receiving benefits and to place all unemployment benefits in a separate trust account.