Attorney Chris MacLean makes an opening statement in a murder trial in this 2019 file photo. He is representing a Maine prisoner who got unemployment benefits before and after Gov. Janet Mills ordered that practice to stop. The state now wants his client to pay back the money. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Labor continued to pay unemployment benefits to several prisoners after Gov. Janet Mills ordered the payments to stop in May. Now, the state wants that money back.

The Democratic governor’s order to stop the payments came after 53 prisoners received nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits because they had been laid off from work release programs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mills called it “bad public policy,” even though an assistant attorney general determined the payments were legal.

Mills ordered the Department of Corrections to hold the benefits that had been paid out in trust funds set up for inmates. But the benefits did not fully stop, according to one prisoner’s attorney and documents included in his federal lawsuit filed in June challenging the seizure of benefits.

The state Department of Labor’s initial April decision to deem prisoners eligible for unemployment benefits sparked controversy. It was made public in May when the Courier Gazette wrote about the practice and Mills’ order to stop it. The episode came as Mainers struggled to file unemployment claims amid unprecedented job losses and after Congress provided $600 in weekly enhanced unemployment benefits.

Marc Sparks, the prisoner who filed the lawsuit, received $10,754 in unemployment benefits from April to early July. About $8,400 of that was in enhanced benefits provided by Congress. His attorney, Chris MacLean, said roughly 15 to 20 inmates including Sparks continued to apply for benefits after the initial round was seized by the state and put into trust funds.

All of those inmates, including Sparks, received a second round of unemployment benefits in a lump sum seven weeks after the initial batch was held. For Sparks, the new money was put into a personal account, not a prison fund, MacLean said. But the inmate received a notice a week afterward saying he was ineligible and would have to pay all benefits back.

At least 73 former or current prisoners received similar notices at the same time, according to a court statement from a Maine Department of Labor employee. It is unclear how much all the prisoners received in the end. A labor department spokesperson declined to comment on that, citing confidentiality, and did not respond to follow-up questions about why benefits were paid out after Mills’ order.

It has also been unclear what the state plans to do with the seized funds. A Department of Corrections spokesperson said it is still holding inmate benefits, but MacLean said it was clear the state aims to get the money back.

“They’re putting a lot of pressure on these inmates to give up their claims,” he said. “They’re using the awesome power of the state to exploit some of its most vulnerable members.”

He said Sparks still has the second round of benefits in his private account. Losing that alongside the first round that was seized would leave Sparks ”destitute and unable to afford housing and basic necessities,” according to an amended complaint filed Monday by MacLean. Sparks is expected to be released from the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren this week.

While a state attorney initially said the payments to prisoners were legal, a July 21 memo from the U.S. Department of Labor said the loss of a work-release program does not entitle prisoners to the $600 in extra weekly benefits provided under the federal stimulus bill.

This month, the state requested that Sparks’ lawsuit be dismissed because he did not appeal the loss of benefits through the labor department after the agency said he was no longer eligible. Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey argued that the “urgency of the moment” and “the nature of the benefits at issue” allowed the state to seize Sparks’ benefits without going through the normal procedures. That dismissal request has been withdrawn but will likely be refiled.

MacLean maintained that Mills acted outside the scope of her power by going against the initial state opinion that prisoners qualified for benefits, and the state did not follow proper procedure to determine if benefits were wrongly paid out.

“This after-the-fact process is a sham because the result is clearly ordained by the Governor’s order,” he said in his recent filing.