Matthew Smart, from left, Tyler Poirier and William Wight work on setting up a fence along the children’s area as preparation for the 2019 American Folk Festival was well under way on the Bangor Waterfront Tuesday afternoon. They were members of crew of nine inmates and two officers from the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston that has been sending helping to set up and takedown for at least the past ten years. Credit: Gabor Degre | bdn

Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

Gov. Janet Mills this week said it was “appalling” and “bad public policy” that 53 inmates had received nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits after they lost work-release jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But some who advocate for inmates questioned why prisoners laid off from work-release jobs — where they often work alongside conventional employees while serving their sentences — shouldn’t receive benefits that can help them support their families right now and help them get back on their feet once they’re released.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

The Courier-Gazette in Rockland first reported that the 53 inmates had received unemployment benefits — including the standard state benefit and the expanded federal benefit that pays $600 weekly through the end of July. On May 15, Mills ordered that the payments stop despite an opinion from an assistant attorney general that found the payments were legal, the paper reported.

The money is now held in a trust, according to the Maine Department of Corrections, minus 20 to 25 percent to pay for room, board, transportation and any restitution the inmates might owe as part of their sentences. No decision has been made about what will happen to the money.

Some legislators said the frustration was fueled in part by the fact that many Maine residents are still struggling to get benefits through the state’s unemployment system weeks after filing. But advocates for prisoners and workers say the situation shows how negatively society views those who are incarcerated and how important that money can be to prisoners’ re-entry into their communities.

“The only difference between one of these folks and a person working the exact same job, or any job, is being in the custody of the state of Maine,” said Whitney Parrish, a member of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition. “There is also no difference between what forced them to stop working: a terrible crisis for which no one was prepared.”

While work release provides benefits to inmates — such as life skills, work experience, support for employers and the ability to pay back restitution — it is a “privilege” and that inmates who lose it “for whatever reason” should not have access to the benefits system, Mills wrote to Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty on May 15.

“During this public health crisis especially, 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,” Mills wrote.

Maine’s work release program allows inmates to leave the correctional facility where they’re incarcerated to work. It is available to inmates who have less than two years on their sentence and are approved for the program, according to a Maine Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Conservation document advertising the benefits of the program to farms.

It’s meant as a way to help prisoners prepare to re-enter society, especially because of the barriers they can face once they are released. Former inmates often face barriers to employment due to their criminal records. About 27 percent are unemployed, according to a 2018 Prison Policy Initiative report.

Typically, inmates aren’t eligible for state unemployment benefits, and the Department of Labor cross-checks applicant names with a database of Maine inmates to ensure none have applied.

But in her legal opinion, Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski pointed to a section in federal employment law that she said allows prisoners employed by private companies to collect unemployment. In addition, because the inmates had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, they would also qualify for state unemployment benefits under a far-reaching virus response bill the Legislature passed in March.

Mills values the work-release program, but “simply thinks it is wrong for prisoners to receive unemployment benefits,” said Lindsay Crete, a spokesperson for Mills.

State Rep. Joshua Morris, R-North Turner, said he still receives calls from constituents who are struggling to secure benefits or even reach the Department of Labor. While he said people may be “frustrated” any time an incarcerated person receives benefits from the state, the current unemployment situation has exacerbated that reaction.

“My personal feeling is that if you are in prison and you have to go to work, that’s fine,” he said. “But if you are unemployed, and there are people that are free who haven’t committed crimes, they should go first.”

But the inmates lost their work-release jobs for the same reason others did — because the pandemic has forced businesses to shut down and lay off workers, said Drew Christopher Joy, the executive director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, a labor rights advocacy group in Portland.

“If you’re working a job and lose it through no fault of your own, you’re entitled to benefits,” he said. “There’s this idea that people who don’t deserve unemployment are getting it while people who deserve it don’t.”

Peter Lehman, the legislative coordinator for the Prisoner Advocacy Coalition and a board member of the Maine Prisoner Re-entry Network, said the governor’s actions amounted to a betrayal of the inmates working to rehabilitate themselves.

“For many, this money is critical to their re-entry and success in the community,” he said. “…If you take this work and these benefits from them, you’re creating a situation where they will have fewer resources and [won’t have] the capacity to employ themselves.”

Watch: Testing at Maine correctional centers

[bdnvideo id=”2977643″]