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Inmate sues Mills over seized unemployment benefits

‘Governor Mills’s directive is entirely outside the scope of due process,’ the lawsuit claims.

WARREN, Maine — A Bolduc Correctional Facility (BCF) inmate has filed a civil action lawsuit against Gov. Janet Mills, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, and the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) over the decision to seize unemployment benefits from work-release program inmates.

It was revealed in May that more nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits had been paid out to 53 work-release program inmates before payments were stopped and seized. The benefits included the $600 extra per week made possible through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program.

 In a letter obtained through a Freedom of Access request, the Governor wrote to Commissioner Liberty ordering an end to allow inmates to receive unemployment benefits.

“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 said in the letter to Commissioner Liberty.

RELATED: Nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits paid out to 53 inmates

Now, one of those inmates, Marc Sparks, is seeking justice for himself and other inmates who were receiving benefits, claiming Mills and two of her administrations’ commissioners acted out of due process.

Sparks claims he and the other inmates who had benefits taken away are entitled to benefits under Maine state law, and that Mills “made an extra-procedural decision to deny the Plaintiffs the unemployment benefits.” The lawsuit says Sparks lost his employment, made possible through the Dept. of Corrections’ work-release program, due to the coronavirus pandemic, just as thousands of Mainers had.

Read the complete lawsuit here:

Sparks received the minimum unemployment benefit amount available to Maine residents: $172 per week from the state plus the $600 PUA payment, for a total of $772 per week.

In a letter, dated May 15, to Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, Mills said especially during the current public health crisis, the benefits should be reserved and prioritized for the thousands of Mainers who aren’t incarcerated who are struggling for basic necessities, such as food and rent—expenses inmates don’t have while incarcerated.

“Contrary to what Governor Mills appears to believe, basic necessities also cost money for incarcerated individuals and their struggling Maine families,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Sparks used his benefits primarily to support his children, pay for room and board, and to purchase soap, shampoo, toiletries, clothes, and other personal supplies at the BCF commissary.”

Mills directed Commissioner Liberty to not only provide a list of all the inmates who have received the benefits but to also place any and all of the money in separate trust accounts for the inmates.

The lawsuit says, “Governor Mills made no attempt to refute the Work Release Program Participants’ eligibility for unemployment benefits. Rather, she noted only that she found the distribution of unemployment benefits ‘appalling and to be bad public policy,’ and that she did ‘not believe that it was the intent of the Legislature or Congress to allow inmates to receive state or federal benefits, including the $600 weekly PUA payment.’”

In another document obtained through the Freedom of Access request, MDOL Commissioner Laura Fortman received a memo from Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski on April 29, saying it was legal for the inmates in work-release programs to receive unemployment benefits, which the lawsuit also notes.

Mills ordered the MDOL to stop the distribution of payments for the inmates, which MDOL Commissioner Laura Fortman did.

The lawsuit says, “The cessation of unemployment benefits for the Work Release Program participants and the seizure of benefits already paid occurred without any semblance of procedural due process. Governor Mills acted unilaterally and outside the scope of her executive authority to deprive qualified individuals of the funds to which they are legally entitled. In doing so, she usurped the authority of both the legislature that drafted the emergency unemployment legislation and the judiciary whose role it is to interpret that legislation.”

Sparks is also challenging the denial of his and the other inmates’ constitutional rights.

Mills said the work-release program “is a privilege—not a right,” but the lawsuit claims in the U.S. Constitution, “procedural due process is a right.”

Sparks, of Hancock County, is currently incarcerated in Knox County.

RELATED: State unemployment maximum weekly benefit to increase June 1

RELATED: Maine Department of Labor investigating roughly 1000 reports of unemployment claim fraud

RELATED: Nearly 41 million workers filed for unemployment since coronavirus hit

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At NEWS CENTER Maine, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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