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Judge: Man Held in Solitary Nearly 2 Years Was Denied Due Process Rights

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

A Superior Court judge has sided with a Maine State Prison inmate who claimed his due process rights were violated when he was put in solitary confinement for nearly two years.

Justice Michaela Murphy says now that Douglas Burr is back in general population, she is asking both sides to weigh in about whether he should still be entitled to any additional relief.

Burr, a Maine State Prison inmate, is serving a 60-year-sentence for murder. He had spent about a third of his time behind bars without any disciplinary problems when he suddenly found himself being transferred to the Special Management Unit, otherwise known as segregation or solitary confinement.

At the Maine State Prison in Warren it means living in an 8- by 12-foot cell.

“June 12, 2014, I went down to seg. I came out of seg April 1, 2016,” Burr says.

In segregation, the lights are always on so that prisoners can be observed at all times, and meals are delivered through a slot in the door.

“The first 10 months I was under what they call administrative segregation, which is the most restricted classification you can be under,” Burr says. “It’s one hour out of your cell five days a week. So you only get five hours out of your cell. The rest you’re in your cell at all times. You get three showers a week.”

Why Burr stayed in solitary so long remains unclear. Prison officials and their attorneys are unable to discuss the case while it is still pending. But according to depositions of prison staff, a prison investigation that included monitoring of Burr’s mail and telephone calls uncovered evidence that Burr was trafficking in drugs with the assistance of his wife.

That evidence has never been presented. No drugs were ever found, and Burr’s wife was never charged. A disciplinary charge brought against Burr was dropped.

Still, prison officials refused to move him out of segregation. So after he exhausted the prison’s grievance process, Burr filed an administrative appeal in Kennebec County Superior Court.

“When we took depositions in the case we asked, what does Mr. Burr have to do to get out?” says Eric Mehnert, Doug Burr’s attorney. “What we heard repeatedly is that he has to accept responsibility for wrongdoing. So, they wanted him to admit that he did something that they could not find him responsible for because they lacked the evidence.”

As part of his complaint, Burr sought injunctive relief from prison officials and damages from Cpl. Mark Egnstfeld, a guard who Burr says falsified a disciplinary report.

Last week, Justice Murphy issued an order in the case.

“The order from Justice Murphy rules in Mr. Burr’s favor in finding that there were procedural irregularities with the State Prison’s grievance process and how they treated Mr. Burr. In fact she found there were procedural due process violations,” Mehnert says.

The judge ordered the Department of Corrections to refund monetary sanctions imposed against Burr, restoration of any good time lost and his disciplinary record in the matter expunged. But she denied Burr’s request for a transfer to Windham Correctional Center.

She also said that “no reasonable juror could conclude that Cpl. Engstfeld’s conduct played a substantial part in Mr. Burr’s lengthy confinement in the SMU.”

Now that Burr is back in general population, Justice Murphy wants Burr to clarify what he wants for relief and both sides to brief her about why Burr should or should not be entitled to it.