A group of state prison inmates who lost work-release jobs because of the coronavirus crisis has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s decision to cut off unemployment benefits and seize benefits already provided to them.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by attorney Christopher MacLean of Camden, asks the U.S. District Court to rule that the order by Gov. Janet Mills to stop the payments as unconstitutional. The lawsuit also seeks to have the money — seized by the state from benefits already paid — released to the inmates.

The lawsuit was filed June 2 in U.S. District Court on behalf of Marc Sparks and inmates in similar situations. The lawsuit seeks to have the inmates determined to be a class action case.

Gov. Mills, Maine Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, and Maine Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also seeks to have the state pay the legal costs for the inmates related to the legal challenge.

Sparks was employed at Applebee’s restaurant in Thomaston as a grill cook, working up to 45 hours a week. He recently received a raise before the virus-related shutdowns.

The corrections department stopped its work release program March 16 to lessen the chance that the virus could spread within facilities such as the Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren, where Sparks was incarcerated.

The lawsuit states that after the program was halted, Mae Worcester, the community programs coordinator and wife of the facility’s acting Director Russell Worcester Jr., met individually with inmates to help them apply for unemployment benefits.

A total of 53 individual inmates were determined to be eligible for unemployment benefits, including the additional $600 per week pandemic unemployment assistance payment. They were paid $198,767 in unemployment benefits, which averaged $3,750 per inmate since mid-March.

The Labor Department, in consultation with Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowksi, initially determined the inmates would be eligible for benefits. A letter from Macirowski was sent to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman April 29.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Janet Mills said the governor was informed of the inmates receiving benefits at the end of April. Mills notified the Labor Department to stop providing the payments, and in a May 15 letter to Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty also ordered a halt to the practice.

“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 (pandemic unemployment assistance) payment,” Mills stated in her letter to Liberty.

The Corrections Department seized the money already paid to the inmates, placed it in another account and stopped distributing the money to the inmates.

The lawsuit argues that the cessation of benefits being paid and the seizure of the money was done “without any semblance of procedural due process,” and the legal action claims the governor acted unilaterally and outside the scope of her authority.

“The seizure of funds mandated by Governor Mills has dramatically impacted those incarcerated at BCF who received unemployment benefits. For instance, because Mr. Sparks spent approximately $350 of the money that he received in unemployment benefits, his phone account is now levied each time his girlfriend pays money to the account so that she can speak to Mr. Sparks on the phone. Until the $350 is recouped, Mr. Sparks cannot communicate with the outside world other than through a collect call. Other prisoners face the same issues.

“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.

At a May 23 media briefing on COVID-19, Gov. Mills was asked what legal reason was there to stop the inmates from receiving benefits. She did not offer a legal reason but reiterated her position that it was not the intent of the Legislature or the Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly pandemic payment.

Emails seeking responses to the suit were sent Tuesday afternoon, June 2, to the governor’s office, Liberty and Fortman.

State officials have indicated the loss of work release jobs was considered a unique circumstance because of the disruption caused by the pandemic.

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