Maine Public | By Susan Sharon | Published August 27, 2021 at 5:35 PM EDT
A longtime resident of the Maine State Prison has settled a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections over the nearly two years he spent in solitary confinement without justification.
Under the terms of the unusual settlement, attorney fees will be paid, disciplinary hearing officers at the prison will require certain training and no one will ever spend more than 30 days in isolation without the DOC commissioner’s approval.
Doug Burr’s case against the Department of Corrections began seven years ago, when he was accused of trafficking drugs in the Maine State Prison with the help of his wife. Burr is serving a 59-year sentence for murder and had never been in trouble in prison. Suddenly he found himself in “administrative segregation,” also known as solitary confinement, and abruptly cut off from phone calls and visits with her.
“So I had no ability to communicate with her 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,” he said, “which was horrible for her because she didn’t understand what was going on. So, it was just a really, really, really hard process.”
Burr was eventually permitted one phone call and one noncontact visit a week, but he wasn’t allowed to see his wife for a year. While no evidence was ever being brought against him, he spent the next 22 months locked in an 8- by 10-foot cell. For ten of those months, he only came out for three showers a week and five hours of recreation in shackles. The remainder of the time he lived in slightly less restrictive conditions.
Burr was told that the only way he could return to general population is if he admitted his guilt.
“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 astounding to me,” says Eric Mehnert, Burr’s attorney.
Burr exhausted the prison grievance process and then filed an appeal in Kennebec County Superior Court. For him, pursuing the case was about getting more accountability in the disciplinary system and more oversight around administrative segregation.
“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. And at a certain time, at a certain point, it’s one of those make it or break it with your spirit,” he says.
Burr passed the time by reading, exercising and studying. He was released from segregation in 2016. And as his complaint slowly worked its way through the courts, he earned a college degree
Late last year, the Maine Supreme Court sided with Burr and ordered a Superior Court judge to consider whether he should be entitled to some sort of remedy as well as attorney’s fees. Justice Michael Murphy had previously found that Burr’s due process rights were violated when he was held in segregation for 22 months without “meaningful periodic review.”
With a federal civil rights lawsuit also pending, Justice Murphy asked both sides to agree to mediation. And in July the case was settled.
“It really, I think, signifies that the department is leading in a forward direction around restrictive housing practices,” says Deputy Corrections Commissioner Ryan Thornell.
Thornell says even before the settlement, the department had taken steps to reduce the number of residents in solitary confinement. On most days, he says there are fewer than ten people in the most restrictive housing across three state prison facilities. And there’s a system for checking on them.
“We have safeguards put in place that are reviewed at the 72-hour mark, also at the seven-day mark, and weekly thereafter. And also at the 30-day mark. And it’s very rare now that an individual would be on an administrative status up to 30 days,” he says.
As part of Burr’s settlement no resident can be held in segregation for more than 30 days without review and approval from the DOC commissioner. It also says no one can be kept there for refusing to admit to alleged wrongdoing.
Thornell says the department takes the issue of due process seriously and has worked to train staff on both placement in and release from segregation.
The settlement makes clear that no prison staffer can act as a disciplinary hearing officer without appropriate training. And finally, it requires the DOC to reimburse attorney fees in the amount of $170,000.
“It couldn’t have happened without the support of my family, especially my mom and my stepdad. My mom had to tap into her retirement to pay for my attorney, who was also incredible through this,” Burr says.
Burr says the main thing he wanted was a guarantee that no one else will have to endure what he did in segregation. His settlement doesn’t end the practice and there are exceptions to the 30-day limit. but Burr says he’s seen an improvement. And Thornell says the DOC remains committed to creating less restrictive housing going forward.