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Panel to weigh in on lawsuit over Maine inmates' jobless benefits

The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday as the prisoners appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit.

BOSTON, Massachusetts — A federal appeals court is weighing a lawsuit brought by Maine prison inmates who were denied unemployment benefits for work-release jobs they lost in the pandemic. 

The 53 prisoners who lost nearly $200,000 in unemployment benefits contend they were denied due process when the governor ruled without a hearing that they were not entitled to the benefit. 

Gov. Janet Mills contended the payments were “bad public policy.” 

The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday as the prisoners appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit.

In total, prisoners got $198,767 in unemployment benefits with an average amount of $3,750 before Mills intervened to stop the payments. The benefits included an extra $600 per week through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.  

Marc Sparks, who is named as a plaintiff in the case, worked as a cook at the Applebee's restaurant in Thomaston through a work-release program during his incarceration at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren.

According to court documents, Sparks got more than $10,000 in unemployment benefits, and about $8,400 of that was in enhanced benefits provided by Congress. He has since been released from prison.

“I not only find this appalling and to be bad public policy, but 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 a May 2020 letter to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty.

A federal judge granted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but Carol Garvan, who argued the case for the inmates in court Monday, wants the lawsuit to be reinstated. The inmates’ unemployment benefits were placed in trusts pending the outcome of the case.

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