Mentally Ill Maine State Prisoner Finally Leaves Solitary, But Can’t Push State Lawmakers to Pass Bill Limiting Its Use
by Ed Lyon
By the time he was released from Maine State Prison (MSP) on March 7, 2022, Zachary Swain estimated he had spent half of his seven-year prison term in solitary confinement, isolated over 23 hours per day.
Swain, 25, was a high school senior when he stabbed someone with a knife during a drug deal turned sour. He was mentally ill to begin with. When prison staff failed to recognize his illness-driven misbehavior for what it was, they reverted to standard prison behavior-modification tactics and placed him into solitary confinement.
Unsurprisingly, as study after study after study has confirmed, Swain’s isolation exacerbated his mental illness. This in turn drove him to more episodes of spitting on guards or carrying homemade “shank” knives. When committed by state prisoners, these are felonies.
Beyond his assaultive behavior, Swain also harmed himself. He attempted suicide on more than one occasion. After his last try, when he swallowed metal wire and a set of toenail clippers, he ended up wearing a colostomy bag.
Prosecutors were preparing to take Swain to court to add many more years to his sentence until newly elected Lincoln County District Attorney Natasha Irving learned of Swain’s plight from his fellow prisoners at a restorative justice workshop at MSP. After personally investigating the case, Irving called Swain’s situation “torture.”
Portland attorney Robert Levine, who represented Swain, worked with Irving to arrive at an arrangement whereby his client could avoid more prison time for the myriad of charges against him, allowing him to obtain treatment for his mental health problems.
Swain will remain on probation for an indefinite period, following dismissal of assault and contraband charges pending against him in Knox County court. Meanwhile he appeared in March 2022 before state lawmakers considering a bill to curb the use of solitary confinement in Maine prisons. The month before, state Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty had promised the same group that solitary actually isn’t used, even calling the proposed law “an answer to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Swain set the record straight and contradicted the prisons boss, who insisted that those held in “restrictive housing” have up to seven hours out-of-cell time a day. When it was her turn to talk with lawmakers, Swain’s mother, Laurie, said it doesn’t matter what it’s called, “it’s still the same solitary confinement pod where [Zachary’s] served 21-24 hours a day with no human contact for most of six years.”
The bill they supported, LD 696, died in the legislature on April 19, 2022.
Sources: Bangor Daily News, Penobscot Bay Pilot
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