Crime & Courts

Released from solitary confinement, inmate visits with mother for first time in 17 years

Jason Swain, a mentally ill North Carolina inmate who has spent much of his life in prison cells smaller than a parking space, has been released from solitary confinement for the first time in more than 13 years.

Though Swain remains in prison, he will spend far more time out of his cell and be allowed to visit with family members who he hasn’t seen in more than a decade. His mother, Shirley, visited with him last month, for the first time in 17 years.

“It was like a blessing,” she said. “It was just a beautiful thing to be able to see him.”

Swain, who suffers from bipolar depression, caught the attention of human rights experts in August after the Observer wrote a detailed story about his confinement. Experts pointed to research showing that segregation often makes mental illness worse.

Swain, 41, is serving time at Central Prison in Raleigh for aiding and abetting a murder. During his time in solitary, the Buncombe County native repeatedly swallowed razor blades, cut himself and ripped open his surgical incisions.

Swain has been cited for more than 240 prison infractions – for injuring himself, assaulting and threatening officers and many other offenses. Under state prison rules, many of those infractions earned him time in solitary.

But in a recent letter to the Observer, he described how the torment and loneliness of his time in solitary drove him to even more desperate acts.

‘i started cutting myself back in 2003 the pain would take me away from all this B.S.,” he wrote. “then i started doing it so bad they would hafe (sic) to send me to the hospital.”

‘Sparkle in his eyes’

During his time in solitary, Swain couldn’t visit with friends or relatives. He usually got just an hour a day out of his cell, so he rarely even talked face-to-face with other inmates.

But on Sept. 15 – about six weeks after the Observer published its story – he was taken off lock-up.

That means he is now able to receive visitors, use a prison telephone, participate in activities outside his cell and shop for items at the prison commissary.

He is living in a mental health unit, but after completing treatment prescribed by staff, he can also become eligible for a prison job. That, in turn, can help him reduce his sentence. Swain is scheduled to be released in seven years.

On Sept. 21, his mother spent about an hour at Central Prison’s visitation area, talking with her son through a glass partition.

It was the first time she’d been allowed to visit directly with him since 1999, when they both went to prison. When Shirley Swain was released from prison nine years later, her son was in solitary – and prison officials repeatedly turned down her requests to visit him.

During the September visit, Swain smiled broadly and, at least for that hour, appeared happy, his mother told the Observer.

“There was some sparkle in his eyes,” she said.

But he was in a wheelchair because of a hip injury, and he looked so thin “it was like someone was sucking their stomach in and holding it,” Shirley Swain said.

His abdomen was bandaged from a recent surgery – and from an infection to his surgical wound, she said.

Swain has repeatedly undergone surgeries after swallowing sharp objects and sticking them into his abdomen. But he told his mother he would try to stop hurting himself, she said.

“He said he was going to try to do his best,” Shirley Swain said. “But they couldn’t just expect him to be the same after 13 years on lock-up.

“I was just really happy to see him. At the same time, I had a little sadness because he didn’t look healthy.”

When a prison officer told Shirley Swain that it was time for their afternoon visit to end, she could see her son’s eyes begin to water.

“And I know mine were, too,” she said.

Global outcry

North Carolina’s prisons have long relied on solitary confinement to discipline inmates.

Those in solitary usually spend 22 to 24 hours a day in their cells, with strict limitations on visitors. When prisoners 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.

As of July, about 2,500 N.C. inmates were in solitary confinement. At the time, Swain was one of seven inmates who had been in solitary for more than 10 years, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

But as the global opposition to solitary confinement grows, North Carolina has worked to reduce its use of segregation.

Researchers have found that solitary confinement can trigger many psychological problems, from depression and rage to hallucinations, self-mutilation and suicidal behavior – problems that can continue to haunt people even after they’re released from prison.

Critics of solitary confinement said that isolating Swain so long violates the Constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. One United Nations official called it torture.

State prison officials say they’ve worked hard to help Swain, but have found he presents a special challenge because he frequently threatens others and hurts himself.

Now, though, prison leaders say it’s time to try giving him a bit more freedom.

“It’s part of his treatment,” said Kenneth Lassiter, the prison system’s deputy director of operations. “We’re trying to look and see (what) we can do different to help get him prepared for society.”

‘A blessing’

In 1999, Swain was convicted of aiding and abetting a murder. He was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. There, he became a danger to prison officials and to himself.

In his letter to the Observer, Swain wrote that his years in solitary only made him behave worse.

“Being on lock-up has made me hate the (correctional officers), hate myself,” he wrote, adding that the time in segregation made him so bored and depressed he sometimes did “something stupid.”

But he ended his letter with a piece of “very good” news: He’d just learned that he had been taken off lock-up. “That (sic) a blessing …” he wrote.

Now Shirley Swain has her eyes on November. That’s when her son turns 42. And for the first time in years, she will be able to help him celebrate his birthday in person.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex