WINDHAM, Maine (CNN) – The state of Maine is holding back nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits from inmates who took part in work-release programs. Due to the coronavirus they currently can’t leave jail to go to work.
The state says their unemployment claims are legitimate, but Maine’s top corrections official does not think those locked up should have it.
175 inmates at three minimum security prisons participate in work-release programs championed by the state Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty
“And when they’re released, many of them have adequate money to allow them to transition to the community to be successful. None of us want them to recidivate,” Liberty said.
Southern Maine women’s reentry center in Windham, and prisons in Charleston and in Warren, let inmates leave during the day for regular-wage jobs. Liberty said, “They can do anything from working in a welding shop to a bakery to a fast food, convenience store.”
Inmates reimburse the Maine DOC for room-and-board and transportation, pay victim restitution, and keep the rest of the income. But to prevent coronavirus outbreaks, prisons suspended the work-release program two months ago.
Two weeks ago, Commissioner Liberty learned 53 now jobless inmates were collecting unemployment benefits. The state attorney general’s office advised the department of labor inmate claims were legitimate, because “work release is not work performed by prisoners on the prison. This is work performed outside the prison for private employers.”
Liberty said “The governor and I are both very consistent in the fact that we believe that was not the legislative intent to allow inmates to draw down unemployment benefits.” So, Liberty froze the accounts, with a total of $199,000. “The offenders cannot access that,” said Liberty. The Department of Corrections is now seeking guidance on what to do next.
In the past two months, Maine’s department of labor has received 150,000 claims for unemployment benefits. They have paid out $400 million.