Judge: Maine prisoners cannot sue the state for cutting unemployment benefits

Corrections had actually encouraged officially eligible inmates to register for unemployment. However, inmates’ funds were cut after the governor decided to grant inmates bad advertising benefits.

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by Maine prisoners suing the state after being cut off from unemployment benefits.

The Courier-Gazette reports that Marc Sparks along with about 50 other inmates filed a lawsuit against Maine when their work permit programs were terminated due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Although detainees worked outside of prison and could have qualified for unemployment, the state discontinued their services shortly after they returned to full-time detention.

US District Court judge Lance Walker has since ruled that the detainees had other remedies outside of a lawsuit.

“Maine’s administrative and government review process is available [Sparks] and others who are like him, ”wrote Walker in his decision.

The inmates, according to the Courier-Gazette, argued in their lawsuit that an administrative hearing would have been in vain because Maine Gov. Janet Mills previously believed that prisoners should not be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Even so, Walker said the lawsuit’s allegation was “unnecessarily cynical[,] as any agency errors may be brought before the courts and appeals courts of Maine’s separate and independent Legal Department. “

Prison cells; Image by Carles Rabada, via Unsplash.com.

The lawsuit, the Courier-Gazette adds, was filed in mid-December; Randall Liberty, Maine Corrections Commissioner, and Laura Fortman, Labor Commissioner, were named as defendants.

The federal complaint had asked a judge to restore or otherwise maintain the prisoners’ eligibility for unemployment because many had worked full-time or overtime while they were released.

For example, Sparks was a line chef at an Applebee restaurant, working 45 hours a week on a regular basis.

When the Maine Justice Department suspended its work permit program on March 16, 2020 to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, eligible inmates were given instructions on how to apply for unemployment benefits.

Mae Worcester, the community programs coordinator at the Bolduc Correctional Facility, met with Sparks and other inmates individually to help them apply for unemployment.

About 53 detainees were eligible for benefits, including the $ 600 weekly supplement offered by the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

When Governor Mills found out inmates were receiving benefits in late April, she ordered state labor and correction departments to immediately stop paying prisoners.

“Not only do I find this appalling and bad public order, I don’t think it was the intent of legislature or Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the weekly PUA payment of $ 600” said Mills Freedom in May.

Liberty then authorized Corrections staff to seize or freeze payments already received by inmates for pandemic unemployment assistance.

In their lawsuit, inmates alleged that the sudden cancellation of benefits – combined with the seizure of disbursements – had the potential to harm themselves and their families.

“For many, the seizure of their funds has deprived them of the simple human actions of talking to their children and loved ones on the phone and buying personal hygiene products from the commissioner,” the lawsuit said.

Judge Walker disagreed, however, and noted that the prisoners’ basic needs are met by the corrections department.

“From a constitutional point of view, it would be unacceptable for the government to cut off an individual’s livelihood while trying to deny the government’s withdrawal of a constitutionally protected interest. However, this is not the reality here, ”wrote Walker. “The state government provides the prisoners with the bare essentials to sustain their lives. Since the plaintiff does not run the risk of losing the ability to save his life while appealing the state government’s decision in a post-withdrawal hearing, this is the entire process that is constitutionally due. “

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