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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit over prisoners' loss of jobless benefits

By Stephen Betts | Mar 29, 2021

Portland — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed on behalf of Maine prisoners whose unemployment benefits were cut off after the state prison ended work release programs when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker, in a ruling issued March 26, stated inmate Marc Sparks and 50 other inmates affected by the loss of unemployment benefits had other avenues to contest the state's action.

"Maine’s administrative and state-court review process is available to him and others similarly situated to him," Judge Walker stated in his decision.

He said the prisoners' contention that any administrative proceeding in front of the Maine Department of Labor would be a sham in light of Gov. Mills’ position that prisoners were not eligible for unemployment benefits was "unnecessarily cynical as any agency errors may be presented to the trial and appellate courts of Maine’s separate and independent judicial branch."

The judge heard arguments Dec. 11, 2020, on the case and has had it under review since then.

The lawsuit was filed June 2, 2020. Gov. Mills, Maine Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, and Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit sought to have unemployment benefits resume, return the money taken and for the state to pay legal costs for the inmates related to the legal challenge.

An email was sent March 29 to the prisoners' attorney Christopher MacLean, asking for comment.

Sparks was employed at Applebee's restaurant in Thomaston as a grill cook, working up to 45 hours a week.

The Corrections department stopped its work release program March 16, 2020, to lessen the chance that the virus could spread within the facilities such as the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, where Sparks was being housed.

The lawsuit states that after the program was halted, Mae Worcester, the community programs coordinator and wife of the facility's acting Director Russell Worcester Jr., met individually with inmates to help them apply for unemployment benefits.

Fifty-three individual inmates were determined to be eligible for unemployment benefits, including the additional $600 per week pandemic unemployment assistance payment. They were paid $198,767 in unemployment benefit which averaged out to $3,750 per inmate since mid-March.

The Labor Department, in consultation with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowksi, determined the inmates would be eligible for benefits. A letter from Macirowski was sent to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman April 29.

Gov. Mills was informed of the inmates receiving benefits at the end of April. Mills notified the Labor Department to stop providing the payments, and in a May 15 letter to Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty also ordered a halt to the practice.

"I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, I also do not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA (pandemic unemployment assistance) payment," Mills stated in her letter to Liberty.

The Corrections Department seized the money already paid to the inmates, placed it in another account and stopped distributing the money to the inmates.

The lawsuit argues the cessation of benefits being paid and the seizure of the money was done "without any semblance of procedural due process," and the legal action claims the governor acted unilaterally and outside the scope of her authority.

Assistant Attorney General Jason Anton argued to the federal judge that the state was within its legal right to stop paying prisoners who were receiving unemployment, and to take money from their prison accounts. He said the prisoners were not able and available for work which is a requirement to be eligible for state unemployment benefits.

He also argued the state did not deprive the inmates of due process when the payments stopped. He said the state has allowed inmates to appeal the action through an administrative process. If they fail to win through the fact-finding, they can appeal to the state unemployment commission and then state court, the assistant attorney general contended.

The prisoners argued the state's cutoff of unemployment benefits would harm their family.

"For many, the seizure of their funds has deprived them of the simple human acts of talking to their children and loved ones on the phone and purchasing personal care items at the commissary," the lawsuit states.

Judge Walker stated in his ruling that "from a constitutional perspective, it would be unacceptable for the government to cut off an individual’s means of sustaining life while they attempt to dispute the government’s deprivation of a constitutionally protected interest.

"However, that is not the reality here. The state government provides prisoners with the essentials necessary to sustain life. Because Plaintiff is not at risk of losing the ability to sustain life while appealing the state government’s decision in a post-deprivation hearing, that is all the process that is due under the Constitution."

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Arnold A Kinney | Mar 30, 2021 10:36

Work release is a PRIVILEGE not a right. What a joke, what a waste of resources, time and money.

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