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The 53 Maine prison inmates who lost work-release jobs due to the new coronavirus received $198,767 ― an average of $3,750 each — in jobless benefits before Gov. Janet Mills ordered the payments halted.
The Courier Gazette reports that the Maine Department of Corrections ordered the work-release jobs discontinued in mid-March, as the first cases of the coronavirus were discovered, to help contain the virus. The benefits went into a trust account for the inmates, minus 20 to 25 percent for room, board, transportation and any restitution the inmates might owe as part of their sentences, said Anna Black, the department’s director of government affairs.
Wednesday’s news came as corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty told the BDN in an interview that he has no plans to test the state’s entire prison population for the coronavirus. Corrections announced the discovery of the first inmate with COVID-19, at a state prison in Windham, on Tuesday. The state would only test for the coronavirus once it pops up in individual correctional facilities, Liberty said. Corrections awaits test results on 120 Windham inmates.
Mills ordered an end to the payments late last week, calling them “appalling” and “bad public policy” in a letter to Liberty obtained by the Courier-Gazette as part of a Freedom of Access request.
Inmates with work-release jobs outside prisons began to be laid off after the first cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Maine back in mid-March. Some inmates applied for and received jobless benefits under state and federal programs, including a new $600 weekly payment that Congress approved as part of a coronavirus-relief package in late March, the newspaper reports.
Coronavirus benefits should be reserved for Mainers “who are not incarcerated and who are struggling to pay basic necessities such as rent, food, and utilities — expenses inmates don’t have while incarcerated,” Mills said in the letter obtained by the newspaper.
The benefits controversy and coronavirus discovery occurred as two inmates at another prison, Joseph Denbow, 54, and Sean Ragsdale, 56, both at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston, are suing the Maine Department of Corrections for not granting them furlough or providing them with the means to protect themselves during the pandemic.
The two claim that they are among 925 inmates under Department of Corrections supervision who are particularly at risk if they get sick from the virus.
The Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, Mountain View and the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham have work release programs. Only inmates who are classified as “community custody,” the lowest security classification, are eligible to participate, the newspaper reports.
Watch: Testing at Maine correctional centers