For more than 13 years, North Carolina prison inmate Jason Swain has spent the vast majority of his hours in concrete cells smaller than a parking space.
Swain, who suffers from bipolar depression, has spent more than 4,800 straight days in solitary confinement – a punishment that research shows often makes mental illness worse. He’s rarely allowed to talk face-to-face with other inmates, usually gets only an hour a day out of his cell and hasn’t been allowed to visit with relatives or friends in more than a decade.
State prison officials say they’ve worked hard to help Swain, who is serving time at Central Prison for aiding and abetting a murder. But they say he presents a special challenge because he frequently threatens others and hurts himself. The Buncombe County native has repeatedly swallowed razors, ripped open his surgical incisions and plunged sharp objects into his open wounds.
“i know you don’t want to hear this,” Swain, 41, wrote in a recent letter to his mother, “but if i die in here by my own hands, let people know.”
North Carolina’s prisons have long relied on solitary confinement to discipline inmates. As the global outcry against the practice grows, the state has worked to reduce its use of segregation.
But – as Swain’s case shows – some inmates remain in isolation for extraordinarily long periods. His plight illustrates a continuing dilemma for state prison leaders, who struggle to find alternatives.
Solitary is generally supposed to serve two purposes: punishing bad behavior and protecting inmates and staff.
But critics of the practice say that isolating Swain for so long violates the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. One United Nations official calls it torture.
“It does amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” Juan Mendez, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, told the Observer after being informed about Swain. “Bipolar disorder or any other diagnosis of a mental illness is very probably being aggravated if it’s not being caused by his isolation.”
Problem outstrips resources
Swain is one of about 2,500 N.C. inmates now in solitary confinement – and one of seven who have been there for more than 10 years, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Inmates in solitary usually spend 22 to 24 hours a day in their cells, with strict limitations on visitors. When inmates do leave their cells for showers, recreation or therapy, they are typically handcuffed and accompanied by guards. Their recreational time is often spent in empty steel cages.
Like a number of other states, North Carolina has reduced the number of inmates in solitary. The percentage of adult inmates in restrictive housing has declined from 12.5 percent in 2014 to 6.3 percent today, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
The latest numbers suggest North Carolina is typical. According to data from a 2014 survey of 33 states, the average percentage of inmates in restrictive housing was identical to the latest North Carolina figure: 6.3 percent.
It’s difficult to know how many inmates nationally have been in solitary for lengthy periods. But it’s clear many states have reduced the use of long-term segregation.
North Carolina prison leaders are also revising their policies. A new suicide prevention policy, which will go into effect Sept. 1, aims to limit solitary confinement to no more than 30 days a year for mentally ill inmates. Whether the new policy will affect Swain is unclear.
State officials have begun establishing “therapeutic diversion units,” where some inmates can receive intensive mental health treatment as an alternative to solitary confinement.
Similar changes elsewhere have improved life for inmates and staff, prison officials say. Some prisons in other states report that violence declined and inmate behavior improved after they reduced the number of prisoners in solitary.
But experts say the North Carolina legislature has not authorized sufficient funding for the alternatives that many mentally ill prisoners require.
“The scope of the problem is not going to be met by the resources provided,” said Chris Brook, legal director for the ACLU of North Carolina.
A rocky start
Shirley Swain says her son has long needed help.
At age 10, Swain was classified as a Willie M child, a designation for children who need help for serious emotional, mental or neurological handicaps.
He later began using using marijuana, alcohol and crack cocaine. “That was his downfall,” his mother said.
He began committing crimes to feed his addiction, his mother said. In the 1990s, he was charged with drug crimes, larceny, robbery and breaking and entering.
In 1999, at age 25, he was convicted of aiding and abetting a murder. Swain’s younger brother Leo had a vendetta against Antonio Lynch, a man who had threatened him, according to court records. Jason Swain helped his brother choose a rifle and encouraged him to go after Lynch.
Leo Swain shot Lynch to death and was sentenced to life without parole. Jason Swain was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison.
There, he became a danger to prison officials and to himself.
‘He took my light away’
Swain has been cited for more than 230 prison infractions – for assaulting and threatening officers, injuring himself and many other offenses. Under state prison rules, many of those infractions earned him time in solitary.
‘He’s a significant challenge,” said Central Prison Warden Edward Thomas. “Psychological staff and medical staff are working around the clock to help him get his situation under control.”
A state prison spokesman wrote that Swain continues to threaten staff and injure himself despite many efforts by officials to help him transition out of restrictive housing.
Prison officials wouldn’t let an Observer reporter interview Swain. But letters to his mother this year provide a window into his torment.
“The hurt im in is crazzy (sic) and it’s a slow way to die.”
“Mom, tell you the truth, i don’t think ill ever make it out of here … cause ive lost my mind, plus the skills to do right they took them away with all this lock-up s*** = 13 years. There’s not a animal the public would think was right to do to them that way but a human, they don’t care. Put in a cage for years.”
“im so tired of this Life it like God has me here on earth to suffer. He took my Light away.”
‘Life is in danger’
Shirley Swain said her son never tried to hurt himself – or threatened to kill himself – before he was sent to solitary. But in recent years, he has swallowed screws, pins and even razors. He has repeatedly ripped open surgical incisions on his abdomen.
“He says, ‘I keep trying not to. But I get these feelings that I want to hurt myself. When I do it, I get to go outside for a while.’ At least he’ll be in a hospital and not a cell,” Shirley Swain says.
How Swain has obtained razors and other sharp objects is unknown.
North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, a publicly funded law firm set up to help inmates, tried to assist Swain. In a 2014 letter to a deputy attorney general, a lawyer for PLS said that since 2003, Swain had undergone about 19 surgeries on his abdomen due to self injury. The lawyer sought to have him transferred from Central Prison to a unit where he could receive appropriate mental health treatment.
“I am very concerned that Mr. Swain’s life is in danger if he remains at Central Prison,” the lawyer wrote.
But the office did not file any court motions on Swain’s behalf. A lawyer for the office said that’s because the office lacked resources. In 2014, the agency lost about 30 percent of its state funding.
On two occasions, Swain got to take part in a program designed to give inmates like him more time out of their cells and more time in therapy, his mother said. But he was removed from the program, Shirley Swain said, when prison officials said he threatened staff and told another inmate to kill himself.
“They keep saying Jason has a temper,” says his mother, who herself served nine years in prison for being an accessory to the 1999 murder of Antonio Lynch. “But that’s part of his mental illness. And being locked up so much just makes it worse.”
Shirley Swain said prison officials have repeatedly turned down her requests to visit with her son.
She said she has not been allowed to talk with her son by phone since 2013. Prison arranged a video visit between her and her son in 2014, she said, but the sound and video quality were so poor she could barely see and hear him.
Thomas, the warden at Central Prison, says he and his staff are working to arrange a visit between Jason Swain and his mother.
“I don’t know what he looks like anymore,” said Shirley Swain, who last saw her son in 1999, before they both went to prison. “I’d love to just see him. I don’t want to wait until he’s dead.”
Across North Carolina and the nation, prisons have become some of the largest providers of psychiatric care. But for many inmates with mental illness, prison life only makes matters worse.
Researchers have found that solitary confinement can trigger a host of psychological problems, from depression and rage to hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior.
That research has helped spur worldwide reform movements.
In 2015, the U.N. approved the so-called “Mandela Rules,” which seek to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days, and to ban it for inmates whose mental or physical disabilities could be worsened by segregation.
In a 2014 report titled “Solitary Confinement as Torture,” the UNC School of Law noted that more than 20 percent of North Carolina inmates in solitary were found to be in need of mental health treatment.
That tends to create a vicious cycle: Mentally ill inmates get worse in solitary, then commit more infractions, and, as a result, get more time in solitary.
Several experts interviewed by the Observer said that is likely what is happening in Swain’s case.
“Over time, this person is only going to become more dangerous to himself and others because of the effects of isolation,” said Mendez, the U.N.’s expert on torture.
Deborah Weissman, a UNC law professor who served as faculty adviser on the 2014 report, said putting someone like Swain in solitary so long is “barbaric.”
“It’s abundantly cruel,” she said. “It’s wrong-headed. It’s ruinous to this individual, to his family and to the community once he’s released.”
Swain is scheduled to be released in seven years.