Governor overruled deputy AG to deny prisoners unemployment

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine’s governor overruled the opinion of an assistant attorney general in calling for an end to unemployment payments to prisoners, a practice she described as “appalling.”

Maine inmates whose work-release jobs were suspended because of the pandemic were paid nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits before Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, put the kibosh on the practice. She said in a May 15 letter to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty that the practice was “bad public policy” and needed to end.

Fifty-three inmates were paid a total of $198,767 in jobless benefits after the Department of Corrections stopped allowing them to participate in work release jobs in March. Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski informed the Maine Department of Labor in April that the payments were appropriate because the prisoners had lost their work release jobs because of the virus.

Macirowski also told the labor department that the prisoners were eligible because “it is the expectation that these prisoners will return to their work release jobs when the quarantine is lifted.”

But Mills said it was never the intent of the Maine Legislature or the U.S. Congress to provide state or federal benefits to inmates, and that work release employment is a privilege, not a right.

Mills was the state’s attorney general before she was elected governor in 2018.

Maine GOP executive director Jason Savage said the payments “never should have happened in the first place” and illustrate why the Maine Legislature needs to have tighter oversight of state departments.