Defense attorney Chris MacLean in court in 2019. MacLean said in a federal petition filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor that the state’s actions violated the 14th Amendment by taking unemployment benefits from inmates without due process.

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A prisoner at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren sued Gov. Janet Mills and two of her commissioners in federal court on Tuesday, saying the administration violated his constitutional rights by seizing unemployment benefits he collected without due process.

The state paid out almost $200,000 to 53 inmates since the pandemic started after the Department of Corrections halted its work release program in mid-March. Assistant Attorney General Nancy Macirowski advised that the practice was legal under a section of federal employment law letting prisoners employed by private companies collect unemployment.

Since the inmates had lost their jobs due to the pandemic, they would also qualify for state unemployment benefits under a far-reaching virus response bill the Legislature passed in March. Mills disagreed, calling it “appalling” and “bad public policy” in a letter to Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty two weeks ago that was first reported by the Courier-Gazette.

Attorney Christopher MacLean of Camden said in a federal petition filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor that the state’s actions violated the 14th Amendment by taking the benefits from the inmates without due process. He is requesting the benefits be returned to his client, Marc Sparks, who is incarcerated at the state’s Warren facility, and all other inmates who qualify.

Maine’s work release program allows inmates to leave the state-run correctional facility while they are incarcerated to work. It is available to inmates who have less than two years on their sentence and are approved for the program.

Sparks was working as a grill cook for 45 hours a week at the Applebee’s in Thomaston when the work program was stalled, according to the petition. MacLean said prison officials at Bolduc encouraged him and others to apply for the benefits a week after the program ended.

He received $772 a week in benefits, with the majority coming from the additional $600 provided for by the CARES Act passed by Congress in March. The seizure of the money had an immediate effect on Sparks, MacLean wrote. He spent $350 of it to pay for his phone account and now cannot communicate with the outside world until the money is returned.

MacLean said Mills acted outside the scope of her powers by going against the attorney general’s ruling and ordering the payments to be stopped. He accused the state of placing “value judgments” on who is allowed to collect unemployment.

That issue caused division between labor and prison advocates and conservative lawmakers, fanned by the struggles many Mainers still face in collecting unemployment. A Mills spokesperson has said Mills “simply thinks it’s wrong for prisoners to receive unemployment benefits.” She has said benefits should be for those struggling to pay for basic necessities.

Representatives of Mills, Liberty and Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The two commissioners are also named in the suit.

The inmates’ benefits were seized and placed into a trust account. No decision has been made as of Tuesday on what will happen to those funds, said Anna Black, a spokeswoman for the corrections department.

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