A federal judge approved a $368,000 settlement agreement between the state and more than 50 people who lost coronavirus-related unemployment benefits when they were incarcerated in Maine in 2020 and couldn’t participate in a work-release program.

That settlement includes $163,000 to 54 Mainers who had been in the state’s work-release program before the coronavirus pandemic, and $200,000 in attorney’s fees.

Marc Sparks, who was incarcerated at Bolduc Correctional Facility in June of 2020, filed a complaint that month against the governor and commissioners for the Maine Department of Labor and the Maine Department of Corrections. In his complaint, Sparks said that the state took back a total of nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits that had been deposited in the prison accounts of the 54 work-release prisoners that spring.

Although each of the prisoners had earned varying amounts of benefits depending on the jobs they had been working and when they started receiving payments, attorneys for the ACLU who represented Sparks estimate each person lost about $3,750 on average.

Sparks has been represented by attorneys from Camden, Augusta and notably the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. Their legal director, Carol Garvan, said in a written statement Wednesday that the money will help Sparks and others “who are returning home from prison gain a measure of stability, enabling them to care for their children, pay their medical bills, and be a full part of their communities.”

Before March 2020, Sparks had been working 40 to 50 hours a week as a line cook at an Applebee’s restaurant in Thomaston through a work-release program for Maine prisoners. When he and the other prisoners in the work-release program weren’t allowed to leave prison because of coronavirus guidelines, the Maine Department of Labor determined that they were eligible to receive special COVID-19 unemployment benefits, including an additional $600 per week pandemic unemployment assistance payment. 


Six weeks later, state officials took that money back, following a May 15, 2020, order from Gov. Janet Mills to Randall Liberty, commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

Now, according to the settlement agreement approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Walker, the state will return more than $163,000 to the other prisoners whose benefits were seized. They’re withholding roughly $35,000 in restitution fees that the prisoners would’ve paid from their benefits.

The state also has agreed to recognize that money in a person’s prison account is personal property, which can’t be seized without due process.

The state announced its plans to return the payments and settle in late April. Walker agreed to preliminarily approve the settlement agreement a couple of weeks later.

“I find that the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate, and appropriate for final certification for settlement purposes,” Walker wrote on Wednesday, after conducting a fairness hearing for the settlement, as required by federal law.

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