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Maine prison inmates who lost work-release jobs because of the new coronavirus have been receiving jobless benefits.
Democratic Gov. Janet Mills ordered an end to the payments late last week, calling them “appalling” and “bad public policy” in a letter to Corrections Commissioner Randall 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.
Mills told Liberty she believed it was not the intent of the Maine Legislature or Congress for jobless benefits to flow to inmates, according to the Courier-Gazette.
Those 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.
Liberty was ordered to provide Maine’s labor commissioner, Laura Fortman, with a list of inmates who have received jobless benefits and place any benefits received into a trust account. The Courier-Gazette reports that it is not clear how many inmates have received those benefits.
Since March 15, Mainers have filed more than 156,000 jobless claims as coronavirus-related restrictions brought economic activity to a complete halt. New weekly claims over the past several weeks have surpassed the state’s previous record of 5,634 set in January 2009 during the Great Recession.
The state has not issued a new estimated unemployment rate since late March, when it stood at 3.2 percent. But that was based on labor force information from the week of March 12, before new restrictions curtailed economic activity in Maine. The state’s revenue report for April forecast the unemployment rate for the month could be as high as 14.7 percent.