Maine 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," states a May 15 letter from the governor to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

The letter was part a package of information 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.

The inmates who have been receiving the benefits had been working jobs outside the facilities through work release programs. When businesses began closing due to 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," Gov. Mills stated in the letter.

She 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 governor ordered 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.

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.

There were 21 inmates from Bolduc who were working on jobs outside the facility, the Department stated.

On the Corrections Department website, the state states that Charleston has a robust work release program where prisoners work at local farms and other local employers.

The Corrections Department takes 20 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.

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