STATEWIDE – More than four dozen Maine prison inmates have filed a federal lawsuit claiming the governor took unemployment benefits from them.
Marc Sparks was a grill cook at Applebee’s in Thomaston when the coronavirus shut down restaurants across Maine.
He applied for and was granted unemployment but when Gov. Janet Mills found out, she shut down the program and is requiring him to pay back all the unemployment money he already spent.
That’s because he’s an inmate at Bolduc Correction Facility enrolled in the prison’s Work Release Program.
“They actually raided the bank accounts of the inmates at the prison and seized funds that had been lawfully given to them and lawfully their property,” said attorney Chris MacLean, who is representing 53 inmates.
“You know, if it wasn’t a state actor doing this, it would be considered theft,” he said. ” And when a state does it, it’s a violation of civil rights and that’s why we brought this as a civil rights claim in federal court.”
MacLean filed the lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of Sparks and the other inmates claiming Mills’ order to stop the unemployment payments was unconstitutional and she violated the 14th Amendment by taking the money without due process.
He said prison staff encouraged the inmates to file for unemployment and that state labor department officials and the assistant attorney general deemed the inmates eligible.
“She disagreed with the law. She thought it was appalling and bad public policy so she was instructing [prison officials] them to disobey the law and to withhold these benefits,” MacLean said.
Mills wrote a letter to corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and said, “I also don’t 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 (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) payment.”
The state took just shy of $200,000 in unemployment benefits, or an average of $3,750, from the inmates.
“Randy Liberty in the Department of Corrections went one step further and began seizing any money placed into the account by family members,” MacLean said.
Those funds, the attorney said, are being used to pay back the unemployment funds already spent by inmates.
“I’ve never seen state-sponsored theft issued by decree from a governor of a state without any lawful authority and without any court order and even after the Attorney General’s Office has already said these inmates are entitled to the money,” MacLean said.