Maine will return unemployment benefits seized from about 50 prisoners who were on work release programs at the start of the pandemic under a settlement that resolves a lawsuit filed against the state in June 2020.

Marc Sparks, 36, of Bucksport was one of 53 prisoners who collectively received more than $166,000 in unemployment benefits because they had been laid off from work release programs as their employers shut down due to COVID restrictions in 2020.

The settlement also calls for the state to pay $200,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Sparks worked full-time at the Applebee’s restaurant in Thomaston as a grill cook while incarcerated at Bolduc Correctional Facility in Warren as part of a work release program, according to his attorney, Carol Garvan of Augusta.

Sparks received $10,754 in unemployment benefits from April to early July. About $8,400 of that was in enhanced unemployment benefits Congress provided in its first COVID-19 relief package.

Mills ordered the Department of Corrections to hold the benefits that had been paid out in trust funds set up for inmates. The governor called the payments “bad public policy,” even though an assistant attorney general had determined the payments were legal.

In June 2020, Sparks sued Mills, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty, and Maine Department of Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman in federal court. Sparks alleged that because the funds were seized without a hearing about whether he was entitled to the money, the state violated his right to due process under the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit was granted class action status.

Sparks and other class members were saving up the wages they earned so they could afford stable housing, food, and other necessities upon their upcoming release, according to the ACLU of Maine. They also depended on their wages to support their families and children, many of whom live below the poverty line.  

“In March 2020, Mr. Sparks and the other incarcerated workers were told they could no longer work in the community due to COVID-19,” the ACLU of Maine said. “The Maine Department of Labor found the workers eligible for the special COVID-19 unemployment benefits and began making weekly cash payments into their prison accounts after making deductions for room and board, child support, restitution, and other debt payments.”

About six weeks after the pandemic shutdown, without giving notice or an opportunity to challenge the decision, the state removed the workers’ unemployment benefits from their prison accounts, according to court documents.

The settlement returns the unemployment benefits seized from the workers’ prison accounts and recognizes that the money in their prison accounts is their property — meaning that the state can’t seize money from these accounts without due process.

“Everyone — including an incarcerated worker — is entitled to equal protection and fair treatment under the law,” Sparks’ attorney, David Webbert of Augusta, said. “The settlement helps ensure that the State treats every Mainer with respect and dignity and that we don’t have any second-class people with second-class rights.”

Sparks was released in September 2020 but remains on probation. He was sentenced in September 2015 to 10 years in prison with all but two years suspended after pleading no contest to charges that he was driving under the influence of methadone.

He was driving south on Route 15 in Orrington on Sept. 13, 2014, when his Dodge sedan struck an SUV driven by Robin Rie, 59, of Brewer. She died six days later.

Sparks was sent back to prison for two years in March 2019 for violating his probation by using drugs. He was serving that sentence when he and other prisoners received unemployment benefits.