Zachary Swain's tattooed hands rest on his lap at the Maine State Prison infirmary on August 9, where he was recovering from swallowing wire in solitary confinement. He and four other men began a hunger strike Monday to protest their restrictive housing conditions. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A group of men held in isolation at Maine’s largest prison went on hunger strike Monday to protest living conditions.

The four men say they will not eat until they can reach an agreement with Maine State Prison officials over a list of seven specific demands, including calls for more social interaction, rehabilitative programs, and clearer criteria for how they can work their way back to the general population, said two of the men, Nick Gladu and Roscoe Sargent. A fifth prison had been striking, too, but ended his involvement Wednesday morning.

Maine has drastically reduced its use of solitary confinement and lawmakers will consider a bill next legislation that could put an end to it altogether, but the strikers said they want to show the urgency and desperation of the situation for those who are still subject to the controversial practice. Two of the men said this is the first time a group of them has organized a hunger strike in at least the last three years.

“Solitary confinement ruins people, which is something these people do not even refute,” Gladu said, referring to prison officials. “Yet they still use and rely on it to manage mentally ill prisoners who struggle adjusting to a prison setting. It’s wrong.”

Gladu, who has been imprisoned since 2012 for sex crimes against minors and won’t be released until 2043, and another striker, Zachary Swain, who was jailed during his senior year in high school for a stabbing in 2015, have previously filed lawsuits against the Maine Department of Corrections arguing that officials have relied on solitary confinement and isolation to address behavior that is a result of mental health issues, in violation of their constitutional rights. Swain’s plight in solitary was the subject of an August Bangor Daily News investigation.

Officials at the Warren prison have said that they only use solitary to remove dangerous prisoners from the general population, and work with each person to form a plan to help them out.

Anna Black, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said Tuesday that “participating residents are engaging in dialogue with facility administration” and the prison’s medical and behavioral staff are monitoring them more closely than usual.

The strikers are asking for greater communication with their family and friends and more forms of programming and entertainment; greater access to medical and mental health services; the end of force against prisoners who act out against guard or themselves and a clearer, more objective level system for men in confinement.

Prisoners in the unit where the strikers reside must graduate through four levels before making their way back to general population, each of which comes with a greater number of privileges, but the strikers say that unlike the due process they receive in order to be placed in confinement for a disciplinary violation, moving up and down the level system is more arbitrary.

“If someone has psychotic episodes and breakdowns, you have a level system where any kind of setback is going to bury people for a length of time,” said Sargent, who said he has spent about three years in confinement. He has been serving a 50 year murder sentence since 2007.

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