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Courts and Crime

Maine Prisoner, Kept Nearly 2 Years in Solitary, Still Seeks Answers

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Elizabeth Noble
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A cell in the Special Management Unit of the Maine State Prison.

It’s been nearly a year since we reported on the case of Doug Burr, a Maine State Prison inmate who spent 22 months in solitary confinement in an 8- by 10-foot cell for reasons that he and his attorney say are still unclear.

Burr exhausted the prison’s internal grievance process with no success, and then filed an administrative appeal in Kennebec County Superior Court. He’s alleging that the Maine Department of Corrections has continuously violated its own discipline procedures along with his due process rights.

Burr is out of segregation now and awaiting a judge’s decision about whether his case can move forward.

In a visit this time last year, Burr was shackled in a five-point restraint system, seated behind a heavy, glass partition. Burr described his first ten months of solitary confinement as essentially dead time.

He could only come out of his cell one hour a day. He was entitled to one noncontact visit a week, meaning a visitor could talk to him behind the heavy glass partition while he was in shackles. He could shower three times a week and he was allowed to possess a single book to read. Meals were served through a slot in his door.

But in a visit last month, Burr’s living conditions had changed. He was no longer restrained. And he was permitted to grant a private, in-person interview without a glass partition.

“So I did 22 months in solitary confinement. Then I was put in a segregated pod from the rest of the population and I was just released last week,” he says, meaning into the general population. “It’s quite a transition, to be honest with you. I believe I was a little antisocial before I went down there but I am definitely antisocial now.”

Burr says he spent just over six months in what’s known as the Structured Living Unit. It’s a little less restrictive than solitary. He was allowed to spend three hours out of his cell and eat meals with four other inmates at a table. And then suddenly, thrust back in general population, Burr says he found himself going from virtual isolation to being surrounded by other prisoners.

Just a few days into this new living situation, Burr says it’s very strange.

“Being around a lot of people after coming from that experience into a pod with like 84 people and they make you have a roommate,” he says. “That whole time I didn’t have a roommate. I had my own little area. So the transition is like BANG — it’s right in front of your face and you have to deal with it.”

Burr has served just over 20 years of a 60-year sentence for murder. He has never been violent in prison or had any disciplinary problems until June 2014, when prison officials accused him of drug trafficking.

But Burr says the allegations were vague. He and his attorney, Eric Mehnert, say there was never any evidence to justify being written up, let alone left in solitary confinement.

“My paperwork says ‘the possibility to attempt to traffic’ is why I’m down there, and that’s unheard of. The whole time that I was down there I was watching people get caught with drugs and taken down to segregation, down there for a week and then released to population. I didn’t get caught with anything. I didn’t hurt nobody,” he says. “There was no evidence and they kept me down there for two years.”

The Department of Corrections has declined to discuss Burr’s case because of the pending appeal. But after Burr filed his complaint with the court, Mehnert says he got a notice from the attorney general’s office agreeing that there was no proof that Burr tried to smuggle contraband.

The attorney general, on behalf of the Department of Corrections, even agreed to expunge Burr’s disciplinary record, restore 20 days of lost good time and give him back a $100 fine he paid. But then nothing happened. Not only did Burr remain in segregation, but his wife was prohibited from visiting him at all for about 18 months.

In an interview last year, former Deputy Corrections Commissioner Rodney Bouffard said a person has to work pretty hard to be put in segregation and then demonstrate he’s ready to come out.

“People will ask how long are they going to be down there. It is not about doing time. It’s about participating in the programs that you’ve been assigned to participate in. It’s about demonstrating the skills that you need to demonstrate so we can be assured that when we put you back in general population you’re not going to present the health and safety risk that you presented prior to being committed to the ACU,” he said.

Burr says he completed every self-improvement course the prison gave him. But this past May, after a prison review board again refused to change his status, Burr appealed to DOC Commissioner Joseph Fitzpatrick. Not long after that Burr was informed that the commissioner was releasing him from solitary confinement.

“I understand I’m in prison. That doesn’t justify anything. I mean there’s still certain rights I believe I still have. And I feel like they were violated in this case,” he says. “I am just a little bit relieved — since I’m out of there I have had contact visits with my parents and my wife, which is the most important thing to me. It’s a little relief that I can hug my mom.”

During his time in solitary, Burr completed a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies that he’d been working on for a decade.

A judge is expected to rule anytime about whether his appeal can move forward.