A Maine Superior Court judge has taken the unusual step of finding that a prisoner’s lengthy stay in solitary confinement amounted to “an atypical and significant hardship.” The case, brought by Maine State Prison inmate Douglas Burr against the Department of Corrections, will now proceed to trial.
Burr spent almost two years in solitary confinement in the Special Management Unit at the Maine State Prison in Warren before being released back to general population in 2016. Under the prison’s own policy, an inmate can only be held for disciplinary reasons for a maximum of 30 days. But in Burr’s case, corrections officials said he presented a security risk.
Burr’s attorney Eric Mehnert says no evidence was ever presented to back that up.
“The two things we heard were one, that Burr would only be let out of administrative segregation or solitary confinement when he acknowledged that he had down wrong, even though they had never been able to prove that he had done wrong. And second, it became very clear that it was entirely a subjective decision,” he says.
Burr challenged his 20-month confinement in solitary as a violation of his civil rights. He asked a judge to declare that being held indefinitely as a security risk was an “atypical and significant hardship,” a benchmark the U.S. Supreme Court has used in evaluating whether someone’s liberty is at stake.
In her 17-page order, Justice Michaela Murphy says she believes that benchmark applies in this case.
The Maine Department of Corrections argued that once Burr was released from solitary and had his disciplinary infraction expunged, his case was moot. Murphy found otherwise.
“The question of whether Mr. Burr’s extended confinement in the SMU pursuant to the administrative segregation policies violated his civil rights is, undoubtedly, a public question of the utmost importance. This is evident by the growing awareness of the often harsh and damaging conditions of solitary confinement,” Murphy wrote. “In light of the defendants’ adamant defense of Department regulations and insistence that they do not constitute a significant and atypical hardship, it is reasonably likely that another individual could be similarly treated.”
And that is something Eric Mehnert says his client wants to avoid.
The Maine State Prison has cut back dramatically on the use of solitary confinement over the past two years. But Mehnert says Burr wants objective criteria developed by the Department to guide both the confinement and release of a prisoner from solitary, specifically a prisoner who has been labeled a security risk.
Murphy would appear to agree.
“Guidance regarding the constitutionality of the Department’s Administrative Segregation Status policy,” she wrote, “could be helpful to the public, the bar and the Department.”
The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Mehnert says he expects the case to proceed to trial later this year.