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'The Process Is Unfair' Maine Inmate Calls For A Clearly Defined Solitary Confinement Policy

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Burr testifying in his trial Tuesday in Kennebec County Superior Court

An unusual civil trial is underway this week in Kennebec County Superior Court, in a case brought by a Maine State prison inmate against the Department of Corrections.

Douglas Burr, who is serving a 59-year-sentence for murder, claimed his due process rights were violated when he was held in segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement,for nearly two years. Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy previouslyruled in his favor.

But now that Burr is back in the general prison population, the judge must decide whether Burr is entitled to additional relief.

The case raises a curtain on the Maine State Prison's disciplinary and grievance process. Speaking in a 2017 interview, Burr said it is something that needs to be refined so that what happened to him doesn't happen again.

"The process is unfair,” he said. “I understand I'm in prison. That doesn't justify anything. It doesn't make any sense that they kept me isolated and locked up for so long. I mean there's still certain rights that I believe I still have."

For Burr, the problem started nearly five years ago. As the first witness in his trial Tuesday, Burr described how he was suddenly removed from general population. He says he was told he was suspected of attempting to traffick drugs. After being handcuffed and strip-searched, he was placed in the Special Management Unit: in a12-foot by 8-foot cell with a toilet, a sink, a small window to the outside world and a small window on his heavy cell room door. He was allowed to leave the cell just five hours a week.

Several weeks later Burr had a disciplinary hearing where he says a hearing officer presented him with a summary of a report in his case. Eric Mehnert is Burr's attorney.

Mehnert: Did you present any evidence at that point in time?

Burr: No, I did not.

Mehnert: Were you allowed to confront any witnesses against you?

Burr: I was not.

Mehnert: Were any witnesses brought in?

Burr: No.

Mehnert: Was there any documentary evidence other than the summary report that he read to you?

Burr: No, there was not.

Trafficking is a serious offense in the Maine State Prison, punishable by up to 30 days in segregation. Burr was found guilty and given 20 days of segregation and a $20 fine, which he appealed. He also objected to the fact that the deputy warden who had put him in the SMU was the same person who heard his appeal. Two more months went by and Burr's appeal was affirmed by another deputy warden.

By the middle of the next year, Burr was moved to the Administrative Control Unit, still in segregation, but with the ability to participate in programming outside his cell. And there were other privileges, said Assistant Attorney General Jim Fortin during cross examination.

"You were allowed your television, your radio, hot pot, I think you said. The number of visits that you had increased, more phone calls,” said Fortin.

Eventually, the disciplinary charge brought against Burr was dropped. No drugs were ever found, but prison officials refused to move him out of segregation. They said he posed a threat to prison security. So after he exhausted the prison's grievance process, Burr filed an administrative appeal in Kennebec County Superior Court. Attorney Eric Mehnert says when he asked what Burr had to do get out, he was told that Burr had to accept responsibility for wrongdoing, even though there was no evidence against him.

Burr was finally released from segregation in March of 2016. Now he's asking for a clearly defined disciplinary process with limits on how administrative segregation is used.

"He wants an injunction that says, 'You can't say to a prisoner - because this is what they did to him at the very end - you have to admit the offense in order to get out of administrative segregation. They should not be able to make that a prerequisite for release," Merhnert says.

The trial is expected to continue through Wednesday with a ruling from the judge at a later date.