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 because of the pandemic.

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

“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 before the Maine Department of Labor would be a sham given Gov. Janet Mills’ position that prisoners aren’t eligible for jobless 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 on the case and has had it under review since then.

The lawsuit was filed last June. Mills, Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman were named as defendants.

The lawsuit sought to have the unemployment benefits resume and compensation taken by the state returned, as well as for the state to pay the inmates’ legal costs related to the lawsuit.

The prisoners’ attorney, Christopher MacLean, did not immediately respond to an email requesting response to the ruling.

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 reduce the risk of the virus spreading within prisons such as the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, where Sparks was housed.

After the program was halted, Mae Worcester, community programs coordinator at the facility and wife of acting Director Russell Worcester Jr., met individually with inmates to help them apply for unemployment benefits, the lawsuit says.

Fifty-three inmates were determined eligible for unemployment benefits, including the additional $600 per week in pandemic unemployment assistance. They were paid $198,767 in unemployment benefits, an average of $3,750 per inmate since mid-March.

The labor department, in consultation with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski, determined the inmates would be eligible. A letter from Macirowski was sent to Fortman on April 29.

Gov. Mills was informed that the inmates were receiving benefits at the end of April. Mills told the labor department and Liberty to stop the payments.

“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 a May 15 letter to Liberty.

The corrections department seized the money already paid to the inmates, placed it in another account and stopped further payments to them.

The lawsuit argues that the cessation of benefits and 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 had argued that the state was within its legal right to stop paying unemployment to prisoners and to take the money from their prison accounts. He said the prisoners were not able to work, an eligibility requirement for state unemployment benefits.

He also argued the state did not deprive the inmates of due process. He said the state has allowed the inmates to appeal the action through an administrative process. If that fails, they can appeal to the state unemployment commission and then state court, Anton contended.

The prisoners argued that cutting off their unemployment benefits would harm their families.

“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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