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Maine Inmate Sues Governor Over Decision To Withhold Prisoners' Unemployment Benefits

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
The Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, seen in October of 2013.

A prisoner at the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren has filed a federal lawsuit against the Mills administration for withholding unemployment benefits from him and other prisoners in a work release program.

Marc Sparks is asking a federal judge to find the state’s action unconstitutional and to return the money that is currently being held in a designated trust account. He’s also asking that the case be handled as a class action on behalf of other prisoners.

Under Bolduc’s work release program, prisoners at the end of their sentences with the lowest security clearance are allowed to work in the community and receive wages. They typically hold jobs in restaurants, landscaping companies, sawmills and on lobster wharves.

Sparks was employed at a local Applebees as a grill cook. He worked as many as 45 hours a week making $14 an hour. But then the pandemic hit. The work release program came to a halt and Sparks and the other prisoners were out of a job.

According to the complaint, on the advice of prison officials at Bolduc, they applied for unemployment benefits including federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

“The law is clear and they have every right to apply for them and to receive them,” says Chris MacLean, an attorney representing Sparks.

MacLean says the state’s Employment Security Act makes clear that unemployment benefits are to be provided to all workers unless there’s an exception made in the law. In addition, he says the Maine attorney general’s office concluded that the employment of prisoners by private employers was not exempted from coverage.

“So it was really extraordinary when the governor just decided that she didn’t like the law,” he says.

Maclean says Gov. Janet Mills wrote a letter to Corrections Commissioner Randy Liberty saying she found the law “appalling” and instructing him not to enforce it, to withhold the benefits from the inmates and to seize any money that had been paid to them. MacLean says that violates prisoners’ constitutional due process rights.

“Governors don’t have the right to declare what laws they like and what laws they don’t like. Only the courts can decide what the laws mean and only the Legislature can amend the laws and decide what the laws are going to be,” he says.

At a press briefing last month, Mills was asked what legal reasons she had for her action. She said she supports work release programs for the benefits they provide to prisoners and to employers who need the help.

“And I think it’s productive and it’s a rehabilitative tool. But I also believe it’s a privilege and not a right,” she said.

She didn’t directly answer the question. Instead, she called it “bad public policy.”

“I was also surprised to learn that inmates were receiving unemployment, particularly the additional Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the $600 a week, which is intended to support those who are living on their own and taking care of families,” Mills said.

In her letter to Liberty, Mills wrote that unemployment benefits should be reserved for Mainers “struggling to pay for basic necessities.” But MacLean says that’s exactly how Sparks and the other prisoners see themselves. Large portions of their wages go toward paying prison room and board, child support, fines and restitution. It was the same for unemployment.

“He didn’t really get much at the end of the day, you know what I mean?” says Shan Shay of Bucksport, Marc Sparks’ girlfriend, who says he was receiving $772 a week in unemployment benefits. By the time his obligations were covered he had about $100 left.

“You know almost half of it went to child support, another 10% for room and board. Like he really didn’t see all $772 a week,” she says.

Prisoners who work are required to put money in a savings account to help them when they’re released. They pay for clothing, toiletry items like soap and shampoo as well as telephone calls. And, Shay says, they pay their taxes and send money to their families.

“He wants to pay for those things and he was given the opportunity to do that through being good in prison,” she says.

According to the complaint, 53 prisoners were deemed eligible for unemployment. They received an average of $3,750 until the governor intervened. The lawsuit asks that the benefits be restored to the prisoners and that the money that was taken from them be returned.