Zachary Swain sits in a common room at the residential support program where he lives in Portland on Friday, March 4, 2022. Swain was released from the Maine State Prison five days prior. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

During a hearing last month, Maine’s top corrections official  told lawmakers that the state prisons do not use solitary confinement and have not subjected prisoners to extreme periods of isolation for years.

The comments by Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty contradicted hours of testimony from those who support a bill that would ban solitary confinement in Maine, including stories like that of Zachary Swain, whose prolonged isolation at the Maine State Prison in Warren alarmed advocates after it was featured in a Bangor Daily News investigation this summer.

Swain was completing the final weeks of his seven-year sentence then. On Monday, exactly one week after his release, he told his story for the first time publicly after the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee invited him to join a work session on the bill via Zoom.

“I could go on for days and days and days about some of the traumas and things I’ve seen,” said Swain, who is now at a residential treatment program in Portland for adults with mental health and substance use disorders.

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Swain estimated he spent 3 1/2 years in solitary confinement using a state definition of at least 23 hours in a cell a day. Those conditions caused him to slip into states of delusional paranoia and to repeatedly attempt suicide, he said. Prison staff sprayed him with mace, strapped him to restraint chairs and stripped him of clothing and bedding to stop him from hurting himself while denying his requests for a spot in the mental health unit, he added.

“These aren’t everyday occurrences,” Swain said. “But these practices are happening within the recent past.”

Swain’s comments provided the most detailed and recent firsthand account of isolation inside a Maine prison after disagreement over what constituted that term muddied discussions over the bill. A state corrections official acknowledged Monday that the state places some people in isolation, but said prisoners should not be trusted to paint an accurate picture of their treatment. 

“People living in our facilities do not have to report the facts,” said Ryan Thornell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

He urged lawmakers not to limit the tools the prison has to keep residents and staff safe from prisoners who throw urine, feces, punches or use weapons. “I think it’s important to ask ourselves, what level of violence or behavior toward staff are we willing to accept?”

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The committee ultimately voted 5-4 that the bill — which would define solitary confinement as isolating someone for more than 20 hours in a day and create a state ombudsman to oversee the state’s practices — not pass when it goes to the Legislature for a vote later this year. Three lawmakers were absent.

Before the vote, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Grayson Lookner, D-Portland, proposed changing it so that it would only apply to the state’s prisons, not jails. He hopes a narrower version of the proposal is more likely to win passage while addressing the part of the correctional system where advocates are most concerned, he said.

“I’m grateful that Zach was willing to come to our committee and relay his story and experiences. It was hard to listen to,” Lookner said. “If what he’s saying is the case, what accounts for the discrepancy in how these practices are, in fact, employed?”

Swain accepted an invitation to speak to lawmakers because he wanted to clarify what’s happening at the Maine State Prison, he said in an interview Friday at his new group home, where he will spend the next year learning skills to live safely in the community.

Zachary Swain looks out a window at the residential support program where he lives in Portland on Friday, March 4, 2022. Swain had been released from the Maine State Prison in Warren five days prior. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In addition to spending time in his cell for more than 23 hours a day, he’s also spent months in the Maine State Prison’s Administrative Control Unit, or ACU, where difficult prisoners can earn up to several hours out of their cell.

Unlike the state, Swain still considers it a form of solitary confinement because the amount of freedom and meaningful social interaction is “miniscule,” he said.

By the time of his release, he only spent about 3 hours out of his cell a day despite recent comments by officials about the unit, he said. He also pushed back against the state’s claim that it only isolates people after acts of violence, saying he had been locked down for refusing to return to his cell or making threatening comments.

“They don’t follow their own policies,” he said, wearing a green Boston Celtics hat, one of his few new possessions since getting out of prison. “It would be helpful if there was a third party that was unbiased to resolve these issues.”

Callie Ferguson

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