Maine has reached a final agreement to 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 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 state has agreed to return funds to incarcerated or formerly incarcerated workers by Sept. 14, according to the ACLU of Maine, which represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The settlement also called 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.
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.