Maine Supreme Court Sides With Prisoner Held In Solitary Confinement Nearly 2 Years

Nov 12, 2020

The state Supreme Court has sided with a Maine State Prison inmate who says his constitutional due process rights were violated when he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement on a baseless charge.

Doug Burr at trial in June 2019 in Kennebec County Superior Court.
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

The court ordered a Superior Court judge to consider whether Doug Burr should be entitled to some sort of remedy as well as attorney’s fees and to restore his lost “good-time” credit.

It’s a case that has been moving through the courts for six years, and Doug Burr, who’s serving a 59-year sentence, is now one step closer to getting what he’s been seeking all along: injunctive relief that prevents the type of discipline that he experienced at the Maine State Prison from ever being used again.

“We asked for a positive injunction saying that if you’re going to hold somebody in segregation, or in solitary confinement, that there should be some kind of mechanism in place for objectively evaluating when that individual could be released,” says Eric Mehnert, Burr’s attorney.

Mehnert says Burr also wants to prohibit the Department of Corrections from holding anyone in segregation unless or until they confess to breaking the prison’s disciplinary rules. That’s what happened to Burr in June 2014. He was deemed a security threat for allegedly trafficking prison contraband, put in isolation and told that the only way he could be released was if he admitted wrongdoing. He refused.

Kennebec County Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy later found that there was no evidence that Burr was a security threat or that he had engaged in misconduct. But she also concluded that she lacked the authority to grant Burr his desired remedy.

Maine’s high court disagreed.

“We conclude that the Maine Constitution’s strong mandate regarding separation of powers does not preclude an award of injunctive relief … against the Department,” Justice Andrew Horton wrote.

“My hope is that we will go back to Justice Murphy and we will look at what are some appropriate safeguards that she can order as part of injunctive relief to ensure that we don’t have individuals that are held for 22 months in solitary confinement,” Mehnert says.

The court did order restoration of Burr’s earned “good time” while he was in segregation. Good time is essentially a credit good conduct and allows a prisoner to have a certain number of days per month deducted from his or her sentence. In addition, Justice Murphy has also been asked to consider whether to award Burr attorney fees, a figure Mehnert estimates is more than $100,000, entirely funded by Burr’s parents.

“It’s not that I doubted myself but I started to think, after all this money has been poured into this, when are we going to get the end result?” says Burr’s mother, Lou Hutchinson, who says it’s been a financial strain and an uphill battle.

It’s not over yet, but Hutchinson says her son’s case has been validated each step of the way. The Department of Corrections had no comment for this story, but Commissioner Randall Liberty has previously said that because of reforms to the practice of solitary confinement, what happened to Burr could not occur again. Burr and his attorney want a guarantee.