Maine inmates lose federal lawsuit seeking their releases over virus concerns
A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit on Aug. 14 from two medically vulnerable prisoners who claimed the state’s refusal to release them during the coronavirus pandemic violated constitutional rights.
Joseph Denbow, 54, and Sean Ragsdale, 56, were inmates at the Mountain View Correctional Facility in Charleston when they applied for medical furlough as a result of their ongoing medical issues. Since their suit was filed in June, Ragsdale has been moved to a community facility in Bangor, according to the Department of Corrections.
U.S. District Court Judge John Woodcock seemed dubious of the prisoners’ claims in early June when he ruled the state’s prisons had too few coronavirus cases to warrant an immediate release. The system has only seen four cases and no new cases in prisons since June, although Department of Corrections officials do not know how the virus got in. It bucks the national trend of prisons being some of the biggest hotspots in the country.
But Woodcock’s dismissal of the case was procedurally focused. He said Denbow had not gone through a post-conviction review process — including an appeal of the initial denial of his request — through the Oxford County Superior Court. Docketing of the case was delayed by a clerical error, which led Denbow to believe the lower courts were not proceeding with his case.
“It is unfortunate that a clerical error made it difficult for Mr. Denbow to actually know that the Superior Court was proceeding speedily with his petition, but it is not enough, standing alone” to warrant federal court intervention, Woodcock wrote.
Denbow and Ragsdale were among 925 inmates in state custody who fit the federal definition of being particularly at risk if they get sick from the virus, wrote Ben Beal, the corrections department’s classifications director in a May 7 email to a lawyer involved in the lawsuit.
The prisoners claimed the facilities did not have the ability to employ social distancing measures meant to prevent the spread of the virus and that prison employees were lax with mask use. Woodcock dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning plaintiffs could bring it back if they exhaust all other options.
American Civil Liberties Union of Maine lawyer Emma Bond, who filed the case on the prisoners’ behalf, said she was disappointed in the decision and would continue to watch for the virus in prisons.
“We’ve seen across the country that the stakes could not be higher,” she said. “Experts are calling for meaningful release of prisoners — especially those who are most vulnerable to serious illness or death.”