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Judge Considers Additional Relief For Prisoner Released From Solitary

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

A Superior Court judge is weighing her options about what, if any, additional relief a Maine State Prison inmate should get after spending nearly two years in solitary confinement.

Earlier this year, Justice Michaela Murphy found that inmate Doug Burr’s procedural due process rights were violated by corrections staff during his lengthy segregation. He was released into general population just over a year ago, but Burr’s attorney wants to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

At a hearing in Kennebec County Superior Court, Justice Murphy heard conflicting arguments about whether Burr, who’s serving a 60-year sentence for murder, is entitled to additional relief. The judge previously ordered the Department of Corrections to refund monetary sanctions imposed against him.

Burr’s attorney, Eric Mehnert, argued that there are several reasons Burr is entitled to additional relief, including the restoration of lost “good time” while he was in segregation. He also asked the judge to consider other actions.

“I think the injunctive relief that the court can provide, at this point in time, is to say the Department of Corrections is enjoined from holding prisoners in administrative segregation as security risks for an indefinite period of time,” he says.

Mehnert says that’s what happened to Burr. He spent two years in virtual isolation after being declared a security risk by corrections staff. But Mehnert says that evidence was never presented to his client, who had a spotless disciplinary record until that point.

Even the disciplinary charge brought against Burr was eventually dropped, and yet he remained in lengthy segregation. Mehnert says such treatment amounts to a violation of the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

“The court can rule that the policies interpreted by the Department, with regards to holding them for an extended period of time, does not meet constitutional muster,” he says.

But because this is a single case and not a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of prisoners, Assistant Attorney General Jim Fortin says he disagreed.

“I think that a general pronouncement by the court of what should happen to the prison’s segregation policy would be a real intrusion on the prerogative of the executive branch in this case and would violate separation of powers,” he says.

Judges are supposed to refrain from getting involved in disputes between prisoners and corrections staff, but Justice Murphy says Burr’s case may be an exception because of the growing public interest questioning the psychological effects of the prolonged use of solitary confinement around the country.

“The damage that is done to people that endure this sort of segregation. Isn’t that something that is now part of the public discussion?” she says.

On that point Fortin and Mehnert agree, although Fortin argues that it is not something that should be decided in this particular case.

The judge can respond in several ways, including ruling in favor of one side or the other or requiring both parties to proceed to trial.

This story was originally published on June 6, 2017 at 5:37 p.m.