$170,000 in Attorney’s Fees, Solitary Confinement Reforms Achieved in Settlement of Maine Prisoner’s Lawsuits
by Matt Clarke
In July 2021, the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) settled state and federal lawsuits brought by a prisoner kept in solitary confinement for 22 months without seeing any evidence of a disciplinary violation. DOC agreed to reform its solitary confinement policies, including a 30-day cap on stays for most cases, and it will pay the prisoner’s attorney’s fees of $170,000.
The Maine State Penitentiary prisoner, Doug Burr, was accused by a guard in June 2014 of trafficking drugs in prison with the help of his wife. After another guard wrote a disciplinary report, he was placed in a “Special Management Unit”—solitary confinement—with no phone or visitation privileges.
“So I had no ability to communicate with [my wife] except for writing her and sending her letters, but the department was holding the letters, reading them and eventually she would get them weeks later, which was horrible for her because she didn’t understand what was going on,” said Burr. “It was just a really, really, really hard process.”
For ten months, Burr was confined to a tiny 8-by-10-foot cell. He was allowed out of the cell only five hours each week for exercise—while shackled—and for showers three times a week. He then spent another 12 months in solitary confinement with slightly fewer restrictions, allowed one phone call and one noncontact visit a week. But his wife was not allowed to visit for a year. Throughout his solitary confinement, Burr was repeatedly told that the only way he could return to general population was if he admitted he was trafficking drugs.
“That’s a scary thing being down there, because you’re locked in the cell. And there’s no way out. There’s no recourse,” Burr said. “And at a certain time, at a certain point, it’s one of those make-it or break-it [moments] with your spirit.”
Burr’s attorney, Eric Mehnert, said, “I cannot fathom in America today that we have a place where somebody can be held in solitary confinement and told that you’ll stay here until you admit that you committed the offense even if we can’t prove it. That is astonishing to me.”
Mehnert helped Burr file a lawsuit in Maine Superior Court on September 9, 2014, looking for judicial review of the hearing officer’s disciplinary decision as well as injunctive relief to get Burr out of solitary confinement under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. That suit survived a motion to dismiss by plaintiffs on March 23, 2015. See: Burr v. Bouffard, 2015 Me. Super. LEXIS 60.
Following a two-day trial in September 2019, the state court then agreed with Burr that holding him in solitary confinement “fell below the constitutional standard” and violated his rights. But it denied his request for injunctive relief, a decision the Maine Law Court vacated on appeal in November 2020, remanding the case to the Superior Court. See: Burr v. Dep’t of Corr., 2020 ME 130, 240 A.3d 371.
In December 2019, while that appeal was ongoing, Burr was visited by his wife, and the couple was again accused by guards of passing contraband. Mrs. Burr was banned from visiting, and Burr’s other visits were required to be conducted without contact.
In June 2020, Burr filed a federal suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, challenging DOC’s solitary confinement policies. On January 29, 2021, a magistrate judge recommended that the suit be largely dismissed, except for “damages related to Defendants’ failure to afford Plaintiff Douglas Burr a meaningful review of his segregation status.” See: Burr v. Bouffard, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17487 (D. Me.).
Meanwhile DOC started reforming its solitary confinement policies, reducing the number of prisoners held there and establishing automatic status reviews after three days, seven days, and every week thereafter.
As a part of the settlement, DOC agreed to enshrine these changes and to amend its policies so that no prisoner may be held in solitary confinement for more than 30 days without review by and approval from the corrections commissioner. It also agreed to modify policy so that no prison staffer may act as a disciplinary hearing officer without proper training, and no prisoner can be required to admit guilt as a condition of release from solitary confinement.
DOC also agreed to pay $170,000 in fees to Mehnert, Burr’s attorney, of the Bangor firm of Hawkes & Mehnert, LLP.
“It couldn’t have happened without the support of my family, especially my mom and my stepdad,” Burr declared. “My mom had to tap into her retirement to pay for my attorney, who was also incredible through this.” See: Burr v. Bouffard, Me. Super. (Kennebec Cty.), Case No. AP-14-57; and Burr v. Bouffard, U.S.D.C. (D. Me.), Case No. 20-cv-00206-GZS.
Additional source: Bangor Daily News
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Related legal case
Burr v. Bouffard
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (D. Me.), Case No. 20-cv-00206-GZS|