To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
In April 2018, Zachary Swain placed a small piece of metal in his mouth and swallowed it. Two months later, he ate a toothbrush.
Since he arrived at Maine’s largest prison in late 2015, about four months shy of his 20th birthday, Swain has also used razor blades and broken shower heads to open veins in his arms. Twice, he’s punched a wall so hard he broke his hand. Since 2018, he has been hospitalized at least 14 times for swallowing things — wire, toothbrushes, spoons, fingernail clippers. And around midnight on Sept. 10, 2020, he tried to hang himself with a bed sheet.
The next day, he tried again.
A bedsheet was one of the few items Swain was allowed in solitary confinement at the Maine State Prison in Warren. By the time of his back-to-back hanging attempts, he had spent the previous three months in a concrete cell barely larger than his childhood bathroom that he could only leave for an hour a day. The last time he was placed in the prison’s segregation unit, he didn’t leave for more than a year and a half.
“I went through a phase where I really lost touch with reality,” Swain said of his last lengthy stay in that unit. “Eating the metal and stuff? It’s almost a coping skill. You know, feeling something different than the day to day.”
Swain, 25, is a rare example of a Maine prisoner who has spent most of his time behind bars in solitary confinement.
Researchers have found that subjecting people to prolonged isolation can worsen troublesome behavior, especially for those with serious mental illnesses, eventually making it harder for them to transition back to society. That’s why in the past decade, Maine worked to reduce the practice to some of the lowest levels in the country, earning the state a national reputation as a model.
Swain’s case, however, shows how even a prison that is leading reform still uses its most punitive, controversial tools under circumstances that some still question. Officials say they only send people to the segregation wing when it is necessary to ensure the safety of other prisoners and staff. But Swain likely needs an entirely opposite, more therapeutic response, experts said.
During his senior year at Cape Elizabeth High School in 2015, Swain was arrested for stabbing someone during a late-night scuffle over a small amount of marijuana and sentenced to seven years in prison.
By then, clinicians had diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, sensory integration disorder (where a person struggles to process sensory information), ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Tests indicated he might be on the autism spectrum. Growing up, he cycled through psychiatric hospitals, residential treatment facilities, and eventually, the state’s youth lockup. He tried to kill himself when he was 16, and tried again at the Cumberland County Jail in Portland just after his arrest.
At the Maine State Prison, Swain fell into a punishing cycle he can’t seem to break. Officials don’t trust him to live among the general population, so for 3 ½ of the last 5 ½ years, they’ve kept him apart from others in the segregation unit, where prisoners spend between 20 and 23 hours a day in their cells.
There, he deteriorates, breaks more rules, and prolongs his time in isolation.
He doesn’t always follow orders. He has gotten into fights with other prisoners, and, on several occasions, spit in guards’ faces, thrown punches or threatened to hurt them. Guards have found him with makeshift weapons at least twice. District Attorney Natasha Irving’s office is prosecuting him for seven felony assaults — four for spitting — meaning he could spend more time in prison.
Alone for most of the day, he has grown paranoid and experienced panic attacks. He has gone on and off his medications, not showered for at least a week, and shivered himself to sleep in clothes designed to stop him from hurting himself. Guards have pepper sprayed him, given him electric shocks with a taser, and strapped him to a restraint chair because they are wary of what he’ll do to them or himself.
Such conditions have been found to worsen the behavioral issues that are so often used to justify solitary confinement, said Craig Haney, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and one of the county’s foremost researchers on the psychological impact of solitary confinement.
“Apart from the callous and inhumane treatment it represents, [solitary confinement] is unproductive,” Haney said. “If you really want to solve these behavioral problems, you need to spend time with the people causing the problems and treat them accordingly.”
Swain has begged for, and been denied, more intensive mental health treatment. Before and after he tried to hang himself twice in September, he asked to be transferred to the Intensive Mental Health Unit, a section of the prison that officials say provides hospital-level psychiatric care to prisoners with serious mental illnesses, persistent and disabling personality disorders, and cognitive impairments. The unit has been a key tool in the prison’s effort to reduce the number of men in solitary confinement.
“This has been going on for years. I have been reaching out for treatment for months,” Swain wrote to prison officials in an Oct. 8, 2020, grievance form, citing three recent emergency room visits for swallowing metal and hanging himself. “Give me the treatment I need in the IMHU.”
But the prison has rejected Swain’s requests because he does not meet the clinical criteria, setting up a dispute over what’s causing his behavior and as a result, where he should be housed.
Matt Magnusson, the Maine State Prison’s warden since 2019, declined to comment on the specifics of Swain’s case, citing prisoner confidentiality laws.
“What I would just want to emphasize again is we have a full clinical team that reviews every case, and any case where there is serious mental illness definitely would not be kept in restrictive housing,” the warden said, using the state’s term for solitary confinement.
Lori Swain, Zachary’s mother, has wondered why her son’s documented history of mental illnesses and multiple suicide attempts aren’t enough. In school he received disability services, and in prison, his medical paperwork has cited diagnoses for anxiety, major depressive disorder and a mood disorder. When he was 16, a psychiatrist conducted a 14-page psychological profile of Swain and found that he had significant problems “functioning across a broad spectrum of situations and settings,” experienced strong emotions that easily overwhelmed him and was prone to out-of-control aggressive behavior.
The best way to keep both him and those around him safe would be to enroll him in a secure residential program where he could receive intensive therapeutic services, before eventually transitioning him to intensive community-based services, she wrote.
Swain and five other men filed a federal lawsuit in December claiming the prison has relied on solitary confinement to address their behavior without proper consideration of how their underlying mental health issues may be causing it, in violation of their constitutional rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the lawsuit has hit obstacles because they’ve had a hard time finding a lawyer.
To better understand his experience and the prison’s rationale for his treatment, the Bangor Daily News interviewed Swain four times between January and August and examined court documents and more than 900 pages of his confidential disciplinary reports, medical records and emails provided by his mother.
The records paint a picture of a young man deteriorating as he struggles to follow prison rules in a routine defined by monotony and violence. His mother, in particular, has questioned prison officials, directly and in private, about the state her son will be in when he is finally scheduled to be released in February 2022.
That date could be pushed back if he ends up serving more time for his pending charges.
A vicious cycle
Swain’s latest term in solitary confinement began in the spring of 2020, only a few months after he had worked his way out from his previous one. On May 29, he disobeyed orders to return to his cell and pulled away when a guard tried to put him in handcuffs, according to a disciplinary record.
The guards, noting his “violent history,” used a Taser to subdue him. He returned in May to a 16-cell wing of the unit where men only get one hour a day outside of their cells and one 10-minute phone call a week. The Maine Department of Corrections keeps this section of the prison small by design, forcing officials to limit the number of men they can keep in such harsh conditions.
It hasn’t always been that way. Between 2011 and 2012, the department began a series of steps to reduce the number of men housed in solitary confinement — which had been as many as 90 or more a day — by no longer sending them there for minor rule violations, strengthening their due process rights during disciplinary proceedings, and requiring constant reviews of those in isolation. The changes acknowledged a growing national sentiment that solitary confinement is inhumane and causes disturbing behavior that works against the prison’s stated mission of rehabilitating people.
And yet that mission is also one of the reasons the state hasn’t done away with the practice entirely, Magnusson said. The prison still needs a way to remove people who cause the other 99 percent of prisoners to fear for their safety, preventing them from participating in programs to prepare them for reentering society, he said.
“I don’t think you’ll find many people saying restrictive housing works or fixes people. We learned many, many years ago,” the warden said. “The real balancing act is using it to remove predators on the rest of the population.”
By May 2020, Swain had earned a reputation for disobedience and aggression. Only a few months earlier, he had finally worked his way back to the general population after about 21 months in isolation that began when he assaulted a guard and was found with a shank in April 2018.
On June 17, 2020, about three weeks into his latest stint in solitary, Swain and two other prisoners decided to protest their living conditions by refusing to come inside after their time in the recreation yard until the guards heard their complaints. Their food was always cold and they didn’t like getting only one 10-minute phone call a week, they said, according to a disciplinary write-up.
In response, a three-man team of guards rolled a flash grenade into the yard, according to a disciplinary record, which exploded in a bang that caused Swain’s ears to ring, his vision to swim and forced him down on one knee.
After the guards ordered the men into handcuffs, they stripped the prisoners of their clothing and walked them naked through the prison wing to be evaluated by medical staff. When they returned to their cells, staff had cleared away their possessions except for a sheet to cover themselves.
As much as Swain had a reputation with the guards, he had a deep mistrust for them, too. He believes their treatment often provokes the impulsive reactions he has struggled to control since he was a toddler, he said.
But the incident in the yard was so scary and humiliating that it elevated their tension to an entirely new level. “That was one of the worst things that’s happened to me in my whole life,” Swain said.
After that, Swain was written up for constantly disobeying orders to turn off his light when the guards counted the prisoners in the morning and evening.
His mother noticed he sounded particularly depressed over the phone, and then she stopped hearing from him for a few weeks. In late July, he swallowed something metal, forcing him to subsist on a liquid diet and get written up for disorderly behavior. Later that day, he threatened a guard who wouldn’t allow him to eat his liquid meal with a spoon. Already, prisoners in solitary aren’t allowed normal types of everyday items because they’ve been known to abuse them — for example, shampoo bottles, which they’d fill with feces and squirt at guards. Swain sometimes lived with even fewer belongings because he kept ingesting them.
Toward the end of the month, a guard was assigned to check on Swain every 10 minutes to ensure he didn’t hurt himself. Swain later told his mom how that guard would kick his door each time he passed, which eventually drove him to a breaking point. He spit on the guard, and the guard struck him back, according to an email exchange between Swain’s mom and the warden.
A few days later, on July 31, Swain covered his cell window with a mattress, and ignored the guards’ requests to remove it and place his hands through a portal in the wall to be handcuffed, according to a write-up. Apparently wary of going inside again, the guards tried to get Swain to follow their orders by shooting pepper spray through a hole at the bottom of the door, a technique they’ve used in the past, then shot a Taser into the room, according to Swain’s disciplinary records. He ultimately surrendered, and refused a medical evaluation.
In early August, Lori Swain sent yet another in a string of increasingly desperate emails to Magnusson.
“He really needs the proper medication and psychological treatment. Last time he started getting this way was a couple years ago when we didn’t think he was going to make it,” she wrote, referring to his previous long spell in confinement when she thought he was going to die. She recalled how her son became angry, paranoid and sometimes delusional. He resembled a caveman because his hair grew so long and mangey.
“When he is ready to make some positive changes again we will be there to support him,” Magnusson wrote back. He assured her the prison’s medical staff was watching over her son closely.
Lori Swain feared things would only get worse, she replied. It seemed obvious to her that further punishment only brought her son closer to conflict, regardless of whether his behavior was prompted by underlying mental health issues. Even if it wasn’t, she did not believe it was humane to put any person through this level of suffering.
Less than a month later, Swain had a routine check-in with one of the mental health workers who monitor the men in solitary confinement, and he said he didn’t feel suicidal. Hours later, he tried to hang himself. The next day, he tried again. When he returned from the hospital after his second attempt, he allegedly punched a guard while being strip searched, but he felt so disoriented at the time, he later told his mom he doesn’t remember it at all.
This past winter marked the start of what could be Swain’s final year in prison. If he doesn’t make his way back to the general population before February, it’s possible he could go from the most isolated place in the state’s correctional system to the outside world.
“I worry about it a lot, how I’m going to react to being on the outside,” Swain said during a Zoom interview in mid-May. He’d like to put his strong math skills to use helping out his mother, a tax accountant, to keep himself busy, close to family, and out of trouble, he said.
Meanwhile, just as Swain’s mother questioned officials over how to best handle her son, another version of that debate had begun inside the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors there are at odds with Swain’s attorney, Robert Levine of Portland, over how to resolve his client’s assault charges.
Levine is trying to work out a deal to release Swain directly to a residential facility next February, where he would receive intensive therapeutic support to help him transition safely back to society.
But prosecutors want Swain to serve several more years in prison. When someone commits multiple new crimes behind bars, even if they’re struggling with mental health issues, it’s rare for prosecutors to not push for more incarceration, said Assistant District Attorney Chris Fernald, who’s prosecuting Swain’s case.
In March, Swain moved to another unit in the segregation wing where prisoners can earn up to four hours a day out of their cells by staying out of trouble and completing prison programs. Maine corrections officials don’t consider that unit to be solitary confinement, although some prisoners disagree, and have nicknamed it “solitary lite.” As of mid-May, Swain had avoided major write-ups, could leave his cell wearing shackles for two hours a day, and was allowed to keep more personal items, like a clock radio, he said.
But in late May, Swain had a rough day, got angry, and smashed an electronic tablet. As a result, his time in segregation was extended another 90 days — a punishment that upset him until he realized how little it mattered in the context of his months-long stretch there.
He decided to swallow parts of his radio. When he returned from the hospital after a procedure to remove them, he wanted to try again with something that might kill him this time, he said.
Swain broke a pair of toenail clippers in half and ate them, followed by some copper wire, then waited a week before telling anyone, he said. Doctors tried to remove what they could at the hospital, but some wire stuck in his gut. Back at the prison and on suicide watch, he started throwing up. Some of the wire had punctured his intestine.
He spent two weeks in the hospital last month recovering from surgery and a serious infection. He has been in the prison infirmary ever since. His physical health has steadily improved, but there are signs that his mental state has sunk to an even darker place. A few weeks ago, he dumped the contents of his colostomy bag on a television in his room.
As this was all happening, Lori Swain had a difficult time reaching her son on the phone. When she finally did, in mid-July, she heard him cry for the first time in years. He couldn’t take it anymore, he told her.