Corrections officially had actually encouraged eligible inmates to sign up for unemployment. However, inmates’ funds were cut after the governor decided giving prisoners benefits made for bad publicity.
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by Maine prisoners, who sued the state after they were cut off from unemployment benefits.
The Courier-Gazette reports that Marc Sparks, along with about 50 other inmates, had filed suit against Maine when their work release programs were ended due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Although the prisoners were working outside of jail and could have qualified for unemployment, the state ended their benefits shortly after they were returned to full-time custody.
U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker has since determined that the prisoners had other remedies outside a lawsuit.
“Maine’s administrative and state-court review process is available to [Sparks] and others similarly situated to him,” Walker wrote in his ruling.
The inmates, notes the Courier-Gazette, had argued in their lawsuit that any administrative hearing would have been in vain, since Maine Gov. Janet Mills earlier opined that prisoners should not be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Nevertheless, Walker said the lawsuit’s contention was “unnecessarily cynical[,] as any agency errors may be presented to the trial and appellate courts of Maine’s separate and independent judicial branch.”
The lawsuit, adds the Courier-Gazette, was filed in mid-December; it named as defendants Maine’s Corrections commissioner, Randall Liberty, and Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman.
The federal complaint had asked a judge to restore or otherwise uphold the prisoners’ eligibility for unemployment, as many had been working full-time or over-time during work release.
Sparks, for instance, was employed at an Applebee’s restaurant as a line cook and regularly worked 45 hours per week.
When the Maine Department of Corrections stopped its work release program on March 16, 2020, to curb the spread of coronavirus, eligible inmates were given guidance on how to apply for unemployment benefits.
Mae Worcester, the community programs coordinator at Bolduc Correctional Facility, individually met with Sparks and other inmates to help them apply for unemployment.
Approximately 53 prisoners were deemed eligible for benefits, including the $600 per week supplement offered by the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.
When Gov. Mills found out that inmates were receiving benefits at the end of April, she instructed the state Departments of Labor and Corrections to immediately stop disbursing payments to prisoners.
“I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, I also do not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA payment,” Mills told Liberty in May.
Liberty then authorized Corrections staff to seize or freeze the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments which had already been received by inmates.
In their lawsuit, the inmates stated that the abrupt cancellation of benefits—coupled with the seizure of disbursals—had the potential to harm themselves and their families.
“For many, the seizure of their funds has deprived them of the simple human acts of talking to their children and loved ones on the phone and purchasing personal care items at the commissary,” the lawsuit states.
But Judge Walker disagreed, noting that prisoners’ basic needs are met by the Department of Corrections.
“From a constitutional perspective, it would be unacceptable for the government to cut off an individual’s means of sustaining life while they attempt to dispute the government’s deprivation of a constitutionally protected interest. However, that is not the reality here,” Walker wrote. “The state government provides prisoners with the essentials necessary to sustain life. Because Plaintiff is not at risk of losing the ability to sustain life while appealing the state government’s decision in a post-deprivation hearing, that is all the process that is due under the Constitution.”