A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by two inmates who challenged the Maine Department of Corrections policy on early releases during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State officials have said they are using home confinement as an option to reduce the number of incarcerated people and the risk of an outbreak inside a prison. The plaintiffs argued that the state has not done enough to release people who are at higher risk because of underlying medical conditions, and they wanted the department to allow for furloughs and more widespread testing.

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock wrote in his Friday order that the two men had not exhausted all other avenues for release before they filed their complaint. In particular, he said they needed to pursue the entire process of post-conviction review, including appeal.

“The Court understands and is concerned about the extraordinary circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and its potentially grave risk to inmates,” Woodcock wrote. “But the State judiciary in Maine is no doubt equally aware and equally concerned about the risks the COVID-19 virus poses to state inmates and the Court draws comfort from its view that the state courts in Maine are just as capable of efficiently addressing critical legal issues affecting fundamental rights as the federal court.”

Woodcock dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice, meaning the men could bring their claims back to federal court if they do fail in all their options in state court.

The plaintiffs were Joseph Denbow and Sean Ragsdale, who were both incarcerated at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston. Since they filed their complaint in June, Ragsdale was released and is now serving his probation in the community. Denbow is still incarcerated, and his earliest possible release date is at the end of this month, according to a department database. The judge said Ragsdale did not file a petition for post-conviction review in state court, and Denbow’s petition was denied and not appealed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which represented the two men, also sought class-action status for hundreds of other inmates, particularly those who are medically vulnerable to the coronavirus. The court documents include a May email from a corrections official, who wrote that 925 inmates have underlying medical conditions.

Emma Bond, ACLU of Maine’s legal director, said in a statement: “We are disappointed that the court dismissed the case. We’ve seen across the country that the stakes could not be higher. Prisons have been the ground-zero of some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Experts are calling for meaning release of prisoners — especially those who are most vulnerable to serious illness or death. We will continue to monitor the situation in Maine in the day and weeks to come. “

More than 1,700 adults were incarcerated in a Maine prison as of Friday. One employee at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren tested positive for the disease in March, and four inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham tested positive in May.

Spokespeople for the state offered no comment on the ruling.


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