Special Reports

Solitary Lives: A Charlotte Observer investigation into the secret world of solitary confinement

Mother shares letters from her bipolar son who has spent 13 years in solitary confinement

(This video was originally published in August 2016. Since then, Jason Swain has been released from solitary confinement and his mother has been allowed to visit with him.) Shirley Swain's son, Jason, is in prison, suffering from bipolar depressio
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(This video was originally published in August 2016. Since then, Jason Swain has been released from solitary confinement and his mother has been allowed to visit with him.) Shirley Swain's son, Jason, is in prison, suffering from bipolar depressio

For about a third of his life, Jason Swain was locked in a concrete prison cell smaller than a parking space.

The North Carolina inmate suffers from bipolar depression and was held for more than 13 years in solitary confinement – a punishment that research shows often makes mental illness worse. He became so disturbed in solitary that he began swallowing razor blades, ripping open his surgical incisions and plunging sharp objects into his open wounds.

In a 2016 Observer investigation into the secret world of solitary confinement, the Observer found that Swain was just one of seven N.C. inmates who’d spent more than a decade in solitary. Human rights experts call that torture.

Less than two months after the Observer told Swain’s story, the prison system took him off lock-up, allowing him to visit his mother for the first time in 17 years.

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The Observer also told the stories of:

▪ Shawn Minnich, another inmate who had spent 13 years in solitary. N.C. prison leaders moved Minnich to less restrictive housing just days after the Observer notified them that it was planning to publish a story about Minnich.

▪ Sixteen- and 17-year-olds who have been held in solitary confinement in a Charlotte jail as they await trial. The practice falls far short of national standards. The newspaper’s stories prompted the N.C. NAACP to launch a statewide investigation into the practice of holding youths in solitary – and to call for an end to the practice.

▪ Inmates who killed themselves in the state prison system. Two of the inmates who committed suicide had been housed in prison segregation units, where they were supposed to be checked regularly by correctional officers. Weeks after the Observer wrote about a flurry of inmates who took their own lives, prison leaders put in place a new suicide prevention plan, which discourages prisons from placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement.

The stories:

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