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Governor overruled deputy AG to deny prisoners unemployment

May 21, 2020 GMT
Commuters from Peaks Island arrive on the mainland, Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Ferry passengers are required to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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Commuters from Peaks Island arrive on the mainland, Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Ferry passengers are required to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
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Commuters from Peaks Island arrive on the mainland, Thursday, May 21, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Ferry passengers are required to wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

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.

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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.

The Courier-Gazette newspaper first uncovered the payments through a Freedom of Access Act request.

In other news related to the virus:

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PRISONER TESTING

The Maine Department of Corrections also said it doesn’t intend to expand coronavirus testing beyond the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

So far, there were no additional positive tests after an inmate at the prison fell ill with COVID-19 on Sunday.

As of Wednesday, 148 samples from inmates and staff had been tested and another 39 were pending. More samples will be taken from additional staff and inmates on Thursday and Friday, officials said.

Health officials worked to determine who had come into contact with the individual in recent days, and test results will guide further steps to prevent the spread of the virus, said Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

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Over the past several months, the Department of Corrections has taken steps to deal with the pandemic with enhanced cleaning measures and the suspension of all visits from family and friends.

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THE NUMBERS

Maine officials reported 58 new cases of the virus on Thursday. The total is now 1,877. Seventy-three people have died. No new deaths were reported Thursday.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness including pneumonia, or death. The vast majority recover.

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FEDERAL FUNDING

Mills said Thursday the state has received $52.7 million in federal money for its coronavirus response. Her office said in a statement that Maine “will use this funding to enhance its ability to prevent, detect, and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in Maine by expanding lab capacity and testing sites across Maine in the coming weeks and months.”

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CAMPS OPENING

The administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has released guidelines for the reopening of day camps and summer recreation programs. They include promoting hygiene practices and taking special precautions to protect members of high-risk groups. The camps and programs can reopen starting June 1.