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Maine Court Rules Prisoner’s Rights Violated by 22 Months in Segregation Without Meaningful Review but Awards No Damages

by Matt Clarke

On September 24, 2019, a Maine state court found that a state prisoner’s rights were violated when he was held in segregation for 22 months without “meaningful periodic review.” However, the court denied the prisoner’s request that it impose limitations on the Maine Department of Correction (DOC) concerning the duration that prisoners can be subjected to segregation, nor did it award him damages.

In September 2014, at the behest of Maine State Prison Deputy Warden Troy Ross, prisoner Douglas Burr was placed on Emergency Observation Status in the Special Management Unit—essentially the most restrictive form of segregation in the DOC. Over a month later, a disciplinary hearing was held during which he was accused and convicted of smuggling drugs into the prison.

There were numerous irregularities in the disciplinary process. The disciplinary infraction was not written within the time limits of DOC Policy 20.1. No evidence was presented, and no witnesses testified at the hearing.

The hearing officer did not receive the training required by Policy 20.1. The hearing was not held in a timely manner. Nonetheless, Burr was found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in disciplinary segregation, loss of 20 days of good conduct time, and a $100 fine.

Burr continued to be held under the most restrictive conditions for 10 months. During that time, he was locked in an 8-by-12-foot cell except for five hours of recreation—in shackles—each week. He was allowed three showers, one non-contact visit, and one phone call each week.

He was held another 12 months in segregation under slightly less restrictive conditions. He was repeatedly told he would not be released from segregation until he admitted to smuggling contraband into the prison. Nonetheless, he maintained his innocence.

Burr appealed his disciplinary conviction without success. With the assistance of attorneys Eric and Cynthia Mehnert, Burr filed a petition in state court pursuant to the Maine Rules of Civil Procedure and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and damages.

On March 23, 2015, the court issued an order finding that the DOC could not hold Burr in segregation indefinitely. On January 27, 2017, the court issued an order granting defendants summary judgment on the issue of damages and denying them summary judgment based on mootness. The court specifically found that the matter was one of great public concern and the mootness exception applied so that the claim was still alive despite the fact that Burr had been released from segregation.

At trial, Burr presented video testimony from prison expert Larry Reid. Burr also testified about the harshness of conditions in segregation. Guard Captain John Howlett testified that he repeatedly recommended Burr for release from segregation because “to be honest with you, I never had any problem with him,” but he was overruled by Ross each time.

The court found that there was nothing in the record to indicate that Burr ever physically attacked anyone or made threats of violence in the months before he was placed in segregation or that he engaged in misconduct of any kind while in segregation. Thus, his lengthy retention in segregation without meaningful periodic review violated his rights under Rule SOC.

The court had previously ordered his forfeited good conduct time restored and fine rescinded. It repeated that order, but found—in light of significant improvements to the DOC’s segregation procedures during the pendency of the case prompted by Frontline’s “Solitary Nation” report—it could not order changes in DOC policies or impose a cap on the duration of segregation. See: Burr v. Bouffard, Me. Superior Ct., Kennebec Co., Case No. cv-AP-14-57. 


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Related legal case

Burr v. Bouffard