Zachary Swain, 25, sits in a small, dim infirmary cell at the Maine State Prison in Warren on Aug. 9, 2021. Locked up since 2015, he is a rare example of a Mainer who has spent years in solitary confinement, which has escalated the behavioral issues that he has dealt with since childhood. Under a deal between Knox County District Attorney Natasha Irving and Swain's lawyer, he would be released from prison next year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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A young man desperate to escape solitary confinement inside Maine’s largest prison would be released next year to get mental health treatment under an agreement with Knox County’s top prosecutor after she reversed her office’s hardline stance on the case.

It marks a major step for Zachary Swain, a prisoner whose plight alarmed advocates after it was featured in an Aug. 17 Bangor Daily News investigation. Swain, who has a history of mental illness, is a rare example of someone who has spent years in solitary confinement despite Maine’s effort to curb its use of the controversial practice.

The behavioral issues that landed Swain there have only worsened in isolation. He has repeatedly lashed out at prison staff and harmed himself in acts of despair and is recovering from his third suicide attempt in a year after swallowing toenail clippers and metal wire in June, which requires him to use a colostomy bag.

Until recently, Swain felt like his time at the Maine State Prison might never end. While he is scheduled to be released in February, a prosecutor with the Knox County district attorney’s office wanted him to spend several more years behind bars for punching and spitting on guards.

But after reviewing the case since August, District Attorney Natasha Irving reversed that position. She reached an agreement last week with Swain’s attorney, Robert Levine of Portland, that more closely aligns with what Levine has been pushing for since the spring: If Swain commits no new assaults, he can leave prison in February to get mental health treatment.

The agreement reflects Irving’s belief that more prison time will not make Swain, his prison guards or the community around him safer, the prosecutor said, contrary to the more traditional approach her deputy had pursued. She called Swain’s confinement “torture.”

“I hope his body heals and he transitions back into the community. I think we’re giving him the best chance to do that,” Irving said.

Under the agreement, which a judge still needs to accept during a hearing to be scheduled sometime between now and February, Swain will plead guilty to reckless conduct and assault and pay a fine. In exchange, Irving will drop several felony counts of assault, as well as a charge for trafficking in prison contraband for carrying a shank, Irving and Levine said.

He will also remain on probation after leaving prison, meaning he will still be subject to oversight by the criminal justice system and could be re-arrested if he breaks new laws or violates any conditions of his release.

The agreement is the first hopeful news that Swain has received since he was locked up in 2015 for stabbing someone during a drug deal gone awry during his senior year at Cape Elizabeth High School, his mother said.

“Quite honestly, it’s an answer to a lot of prayers by a lot of people,” said Lori Swain, who has for years tried to get help for her son. “I’m still processing. It’s the type of thing that I’ll believe when it happens. Until he’s out that door and in my arms and in my car, I won’t believe it’s really happening.”

Irving took an interest in Swain’s case in mid-August, after she met with a group of men at the Maine State Prison who are working to develop restorative justice programs as a way to resolve conflicts inside the Warren penitentiary, she said.

During that meeting — which took place days before the BDN’s first story about Swain was published — the men encouraged her to look into Swain’s case because they were worried about him, she said. At the time, Swain was recovering from his June suicide attempt in the prison infirmary and was terrified to go back to the cell block where he had often clashed with guards.

Levine praised Irving for taking a fresh look at his client’s case. When he relayed the details of their agreement to Swain, who has since returned to solitary confinement, his response was, “‘I think it’s a miracle,’” Levine said.

Callie Ferguson

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