Zachary Swain sits in a common room at the residential support program where he lives in Portland on Friday, March 4, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A former Maine prisoner whose years-long plight in solitary confinement was chronicled in a 2021 Bangor Daily News investigation is suing the state over his treatment, claiming the prison subjected him to “an endless cycle of punishment” instead of treating his mental illness.

Zachary Swain, 26, had a documented history of mental health diagnoses, psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts by the time he entered the Maine State Prison in Warren for stabbing another teen while he was a senior in high school in 2015. When he continued to act out behind bars, prison officials placed him in solitary confinement, where his mental health further deteriorated and he broke more rules, prolonging his time in isolation.

Caught in a vicious spiral, Swain spent more than 3 ½ of his 5 ½ years behind bars in isolation. As his condition deteriorated, he tried to harm or kill himself in increasingly desperate ways: cutting open veins, swallowing metal and twice hanging himself with a bedsheet. He nearly died last summer from a punctured colon after he swallowed wire, leaving him to endure his final months in prison with a colostomy bag.

His case shocked advocates when the BDN published an account of his time behind bars, and his story became a centerpiece in a scuttled legislative campaign to ban solitary confinement in Maine last year. While Maine has garnered national praise for its efforts to reduce the use of solitary confinement, Swain’s case showed how officials still use the controversial tool under questionable circumstances.

Swain left prison in February. Now, he is seeking unspecified monetary damages from the Maine Department of Corrections for violating the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment and his federal rights as a person with disabilities. He named as defendants a group of state and prison officials who oversaw his treatment.

“But my primary intention with the lawsuit is to do whatever I can to make sure the things that happened to me don’t happen or are significantly less likely to happen to the next person,” Swain said in an interview Thursday. “That’s the biggest thing I’d like to see come out of this.”

His lawsuit pushes back against the department of corrections’ insistence that Swain’s treatment did not constitute solitary confinement because the state abandoned the practice years ago.

“Aware of the inhumane and dangerous effects of solitary confinement and the constitutional protections against its long-term use in cases like Zach’s, Defendants sometimes attempted to minimize his treatment by using terminology other than ‘solitary confinement,’” Swain’s lawyer, Alexis Chardon of Portland, wrote in a Dec. 22 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Yet Swain’s treatment mirrored what most experts understand to be solitary confinement: He spent most of his time alone in a cell for 22 hours or more a day, deprived of access to meaningful social interaction or prison programs, only able to leave his cell wearing four-point restraints, the complaint states.

“Defendants’ attempt to cloak the wolf of solitary confinement in sheep’s clothing is a well-known, but unacceptable, tactic for avoiding the constitutional consequences of such torture,” Chardon wrote.

Officials knew of Swain’s mental health history, should have recognized his behavior as symptoms and, as a result, should have granted his requests to be transferred to the prison’s Intensive Mental Health Unit or an outside mental health facility, the complaint goes on.

Instead, they “willfully ignored his condition and treated the manifestations of his mental illness like behavioral problems,” Chardon wrote. “Defendants knew that their conduct would only make Zach more dangerous – most of all, toward himself.”

The complaint outlines a detailed narrative of Swain’s time in prison, focused on the punitive responses that accelerated his “tragically predictable” deterioration. It also describes his mental health history beginning in childhood and alleges that the mental health treatment he received in prison — mostly talk therapy sessions, sometimes through a cell door — was inadequate.

The complaint also claims that officials violated Swain’s First and Fourth Amendment rights during an 2020 incident where guards walked him naked through the prison in front of staff members as retaliation for staging a peaceful protest of his living conditions with other inmates in the isolation unit. Officials also violated his 14th Amendment Rights when they denied him due process rights to challenge his confinement, the complaint states.

In the 10 months since he left prison, Swain has been engaged in intense mental health treatment, first at a residential program and now at home in South Portland, which he credits as one of the reasons he hasn’t violated his probation or gotten himself into trouble.

“It was just a culture shock, in trusting that these people actually cared about me,” Swain said, recalling his first few weeks in residential treatment. “Being able to trust someone in that position for me was a huge deal. Since I’ve been out, that’s been a theme, you know, getting used to people being nice.”

A spokesperson for the department of corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Callie Ferguson

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