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22 Months In Solitary Violated Maine Inmate's Rights, But He's Not Entitled To Damages, Judge Rules

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Burr testifying in his trial in June of 2019, in Kennebec County Superior Court.

A Maine State Prison inmate whose due process rights were violated when he spent 22 months in solitary confinement is not entitled to injunctive relief or damages, a Superior Court judge has ruled. Douglas Burr had hoped for a decision that would have limited the number of days prisoners could be held in segregation and the reasons for placing them there.  In her 18-page ruling, Justice Michaela Murphy finds that Douglas Burr had a protected interest in not being confined in segregation without due process.

The U.S. Supreme Court,  Murphy noted, has held that prisoners must be given "meaningful, periodic review" to determine whether their behaviors warrant isolation. Periodic review is viewed as one way to prevent segregation from becoming a "pretext for indefinite confinement."

And between 2014 and 2016 that's what Burr worried was happening to him as he tried to make the case that he should be released back into the prison's general population. 

Eric Mehnert is the attorney representing Burr, who is serving a 59-year sentence for murder. "Doug was repeatedly told, and it came out at the trial and there wasn't any doubt about it, that he was held in administrative segregation until he would admit that he trafficked in prison contraband," Mehnert says.

No evidence was ever presented to show that Burr was trafficking in contraband or that he engaged in any kind of misconduct, and yet Burr continued to be held in segregation.

For the first 10 months he was held in the most restrictive housing unit in the prison, in an 8-foot by 12-foot cell. Two days a week he was locked in the cell for 24 hours. And during the five hours of recreation he was allowed each week, his hands and feet were in restraints.  Living conditions on the unit had been shown in graphic detail in a PBS documentary that aired two months earlier in 2014.

Audio from documentary:  "Tonight on Frontline...It's like being buried alive. This place is like an insane asylum. Thoughts of suicide come a lot."

Frontline's "Solitary Nation" put the use of segregation in the Maine State Prison on the map. And the following year when Dr. Ryan Thornell was hired by the DOC as the director of correctional programming, he was tasked with reforming segregation practices, beginning by reducing the number of inmates in restrictive housing from about 45 to about 10. In a 2017 interview he said accountability on the part of the DOC to prisoners was a major focus.

"Whether it's timeliness of reviews, case plan information, programming that we make available to them, how they're interactions with staff are going to be, we hold ourselves accountable to make sure that those things are actually deliverable."

In addition, anyone who was in segregation had their status reviewed every week by a group of 20 people. 

But for inmate Doug Burr all of these reforms were too little, too late.  Yes, Burr had since been released from segregation. But he'd lost 20 days of good time he'd earned. His family had spent money to hire attorney Eric Mehnert to represent him in a civil case.

In a 2017 interview Burr said what happened to him was unfair and he doesn't want it to happen again. "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.

During his two-day trial in June, Burr asked the court to order the DOC to implement policies to prevent prison administrators from holding anyone in segregation in order to extract an admission of culpability from them. He also wanted the judge to set a limit on the number of days a person can be held in segregation. 

Despite her concerns about a violation of Burr's civil rights, Justice Murphy writes in her decision that the court "lacks the authority to create policy or to engage in rule-making," especially, she says, given that the DOC has already made significant reforms around segregation. 

Mehnert disagrees. "When behaviors impinge on constitutional rights, that becomes the province of the judiciary.  That's where we say that we think the court can put limitations on what the executive branch, or in this case the Department of Corrections, can do."

The DOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Mehnert says he and Burr will discuss whether to appeal the ruling. The judge, meanwhile, has granted Burr one other remedy he was seeking:  the return of his lost "good time."