Zachary Swain, 25, sits in a small, dim infirmary cell at the Maine State Prison in Warren on August 9. Swain, who was recovering from bowel surgery after swallowing nail clippers, is a rare example of a Maine prisoner who has spent most of his prison time in solitary confinement despite the state’s years long effort to stop relying on the controversial practice. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Things haven’t gotten better for a 25-year-old Maine prisoner who has spent years in solitary confinement and whose plight was revealed in an Aug. 17 Bangor Daily News investigation.

Last week, Maine State Prison guards pepper-sprayed Zachary Swain less than a day after he returned to isolation following a nearly 3-month stint in the infirmary for swallowing toenail clippers and wire in an attempt to kill himself, his lawyer and mother said. The guards were trying to stop Swain, who is still using a colostomy bag as he recovers from puncturing his colon, from eating a broken-off piece of a cup, according to his mother, who visited with her son on Saturday.

The conflict marks the latest chapter in a cycle of violence and desperation for Swain, whose story has shown how Maine still punishes some prisoners using controversial methods despite ongoing efforts to reduce its use of solitary confinement.

Swain has a documented history of serious mental health issues and struggles to follow rules. So prison officials keep him in isolation, where he only deteriorates further.

He has threatened, spit on and thrown punches at guards and disobeyed their orders. He has also cut open veins, been hospitalized at least 14 times for swallowing things, and tried to kill himself at least three times in the past year to put an end to his misery. He has begged for greater mental health treatment and been denied.

His story shocked advocates and lawmakers who are considering proposals that would ban the use of solitary confinement in Maine in favor of greater behavioral and mental health treatment housing. It also alarmed the Knox County district attorney, Natasha Irving, whose office is prosecuting Swain for multiple assault charges against guards that could extend his time in prison.

Irving’s office has pushed for Swain to serve multiple more years in prison, although Irving said she was reconsidering that approach based on issues raised in the BDN’s coverage. She  did not respond to a message seeking comment on whether her office had officially changed its position. Swain is scheduled to be released from prison in February and his lawyer wants his client to go directly to a residential mental health treatment facility.

Last week’s episode shows that prison officials have not backed off its approach to Swain even after his plight drew scrutiny. The decision to move Swain back to the cell block where he recently tried to kill himself alarmed his parents in particular, in part because their son has not fully recovered from his injuries.

“It doesn’t make any logical sense to me why you would move someone who has medical issues and is recovering and doing well, mentally, in the infirmary,” said Lori Swain. “Why would you put him back in a place that caused all the problems in the first place?”

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Corrections declined to comment on Swain because he is suing the prison over its treatment of him.

In July, surgeons removed the bits of ingested wire that poked holes in Swain’s intestines and caused a life-threatening infection, and installed a colostomy bag that he needs to use until his wounds fully heal. Months later, in early September, a doctor said Swain’s slow recovery meant he needed physical therapy to regain the strength necessary to have his bag surgically removed.

When he learned the prison intended to move him back to solitary earlier this month, his anxiety spiked and he said that he might try to hurt himself again, Lori Swain said. She and Zachary’s father unsuccessfully begged the prison staff to keep their son in the infirmary.

It didn’t take long for their concerns to be realized: after Zachary became upset over a misunderstanding about whether he was able to use an electronic tablet, guards pepper-sprayed him to stop him from hurting himself, a technique they’ve employed in the past, she said.

During their visit Saturday, he seemed demoralized. He wasn’t sure how he was able to continue his physical therapy appointments when he can’t leave his cell without restraints around his wrists and ankles, he said.

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.