photo of Sean from Kansas City ABC – Sean is pictured in a white kufi with his hands up, seemingly indicating “hands up, don’t shoot.” Sean sports a blue prison uniform short sleeve shirt, a long-sleeve white undershirt underneath of it. He has a grey beard.
Transcript of “That Connection Can Transcend All of Their Fences: #PrisonsKill in Conversation with Sean and Lauren Swain
Little Black Train by Jacob Cohen plays in the background
Someone’s voice: The goal of #PrisonsKill is to show you how prisons are inherent death traps, how they been letting us die before Covid-19 and that will continue to be so until we let this system die.
sounds of people knocking on their windows
A child: You hear all those people knocking? (applause) You hear all those people knocking? They want to be free. They want to be free! They want to be free! No Justice, No Peace!
Crowd: No Justice, No Peace!
A child (yelling): Say it louder!
Crowd: No Justice, No Peace!
A child: Say it louder!
Crowd: No Justice, No Peace!
A child: What’s his name?
Crowd: Jamel Floyd [Jamel was an incarcerated person killed in MDC Brooklyn in June 2020 by corrections officers]!
Little Black Train continues on.
JO: Hey everyone and welcome to the #PrisonsKill Podcast, my name is Joergen Ostensen and I’ll be one of the hosts and producers. This podcast is a new element of the #PrisonsKill media project that was originally envisioned by an incarcerated trans friend of ours. At this time it’s no longer safe to even say their name publicly because they are facing violent retaliation after speaking out about abuses in the federal prison system and encouraging other incarcerated people to do the same. August will mark one year since we have been allowed to speak to each other. Our intention in creating this podcast exists constantly in the presence of this person’s absence from our lives and from this work.
We are prison abolitionists and this platform will creatively work to center the voices of currently and formerly incarcerated people. We will expose the systemic and inherent violence of the carceral state by creating space for those in its clutches to speak the truth on their own terms. Our goal is to subvert and challenge how prison is portrayed in the media, who gets to be considered a journalist and what is considered objective. In doing so we are trying to create media that can help us all imagine a more compassionate future where everyone’s human dignity is recognized, where everyone is loved and where everyone’s voice is heard. Asatta Shakur wrote that “a wall is just a wall and nothing more at all…it can be broken down.” We see the incontrovertible truth of that statement and hope this podcast will be a fissure in the walls silencing the millions of incarcerated people in the so-called United States and around the world.
Our first episode is a very special one as we are joined by Sean and Lauren Swain, a truly inspiring and revolutionary couple, who hope to be living together in the so-called free world very soon. Sean, who we will hear from first, has been incarcerated by the state of Ohio since 1991 for defending himself in his own home against an intruder. In his 30 years inside he has become intensely politicized and identifies as an anarchist. He is also an outstanding jailhouse journalist who has contributed to the Final Straw Radio Podcast and SeanSwain.org. He has a forthcoming book entitled Opposing Torture. Sean is currently incarcerated at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia, despite being sentenced in the Ohio state system. His transfer to Virginia, is part of a phenomenon incarcerated people refer to as diesel therapy, which is a policy designed to separate radicals from their families, communities and comrades inside.
Sean’s politics and commitment to speaking the truth have made him a constant target of state repression. He first popped up on the FBI’s radar in 2008 when a copy of an essay he wrote was found in the possession of raided Earth Liberation Front organizers. In 2012, Sean wrote a critique of the state’s predatory working relationship with JPay and as a result was falsely accused of inspiring a prison uprising led by a group called the Army of the 12 monkeys, which Sean had nothing to do with. This became the pretext for Sean’s subjection to a year long domestic torture program orchestrated through a collaboration between the FBI and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. Sean’s perseverance is truly extraordinary and he not only survived the best efforts of the state to kill him, but has not stopped fighting. He has deeply studied the CIA’s torture manuals and understands resistance, particularly in solitary confinement, not only as a moral imperative but a necessary aspect of self care. Very significantly, Sean is up for parole this August and has a chance to come home.
JO: I just wanted to start off by giving you a few moments to introduce yourself.
SS: I’ve been incarcerated since 1991 for an act of self defense that wasn’t actually a crime. I was politicized essentially while in prison. Yeah I think that does it. Yeah.
JO: So for those who may not be as aware, can you give us a somewhat brief overview of how and why the state of Ohio has targeted you in response to what I would call jailhouse journalism and inside political activism…the state wouldn’t call it that obviously…
SS: I wrote for a small town paper before I was locked up. I had a scholarship in college. So, you know, I’ve always been a writer. They don’t particularly care for writers. They don’t particularly care for anybody who can articulate what’s going on on the inside of the system they operate. So I started off with some reformist writings in the 1990s with groups that were advocating for prisoner rights. You know, the prison complex doesn’t even particularly care for even that.
I showed up on the radar essentially when my writings were found in the hands of…well in the property…of some people from the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) when the FBI raided their space. I was tossed into seg [at] that same time. There was a federal prisoner, an ELF prisoner, named Daniel McGowan, who was sent to the Corrections Management Unit [sic – Communication Management Unit] at Marion. And…apparently they determined that I wasn’t responsible for the good taste in literature that the ELF members had, you know, reading my material, and I was not sent to the Supermax, although I had been slated to…to go there…at least I didn’t go at that time. And they let me out, I was heavily monitored from that point forward. So…fast forward…and it was when I was in Mansfield, that I wrote criticism of the Jpay policy that Ohio had implemented that outsourced processing of money orders and email access…processes for prisoners to send emails…that was outsourced to a private company called Jpay, a predatory company that’s owned by Securus, for profit. And I argued that it was illegal, that the Jpay policy was illegal. And it turns out, I didn’t know this at the time, but the FBI uses Jpay as a metadata collection tool. They have an open sourced, kind of agreement with the FBI. I didn’t find that out ‘till later. I was taken to torture cell row, behind the med clinic. And after that I was subjected to a yearlong campaign of…a torture program…essentially…I was targeted for what I had written online as a criticism of prison officials and their policies. And they equated my criticism of their policy with membership in a prison gang…at least by their claims. Under the supervision of the FBI, I was subjected to a domestic torture program.
You know, the first mistake I think they made was torturing me and the second mistake they made was letting me live. Because, you know, you don’t torture somebody and then let them live because they become a very uncomfortable enemy. So since they engaged in the torture, I spent my time, exposing them…you know…for their crimes against humanity. The more I speak, the more they hit me in the head with a hammer. So I’ve been subjected to, you know, a number of repressions, from long term communications suspension that essentially black site me in place, which happens numerous times, more times than I can count; trips to Supermax; at one time they plotted an assasination attempt and they did a terrible job of it. Once that was exposed and they realized they couldn’t kill me without the whole world knowing that’s exactly what they did, they illegally renditioned me from Ohio to another state, that’s how I came to Virginia.
So yeah—in all of this—I just simply refuse to shut up. I’m just a slow learner…(laughs).
JO: We’re all really grateful for that—
SS: Well thank you.
JO: I want to flag the phrase ‘torture cell row’ because that’s a phrase that you talk about in your writing as being used by both incarcerated people but also the staff. So it’s pretty explicit what’s going on there. And you talk about this and you talk about solitary confinement in the terms of what the CIA in their manuals as the quote un quote ‘simple torture situation.’ Can you explain what you mean by this and how you came to this understanding?
SS: Yeah—First to speak to ‘torture cell row’—at Mansfield this was a row of cells behind the med clinic that was not segregation. This wasn’t segregation, this was essentially the medical unit. But these were not medical cells. The cell that I was in when I was first sent there had no bed and the temperature was very, very, cold. I just had the clothes on my back and a blanket and I had essentially no property. You know, no writing materials, no access to a phone, no contact with other prisoners. I was in the cell 24 hours a day. No showers. You know, food was brought, it was starvation portions in a styrofoam tray that doesn’t even hold the standard meal. And it was so cold that I was pacing constantly just to stay warm. In the mornings and the evenings I could see my breath. So when the sun was down, there was the foreboding. I remember there was this one inch wide window in the cell and I would watch the sun go down over one of the other buildings and there was just this sense of foreboding that I had to make it through the next eight hours—you know—because it’s that cold. I would pace 24 hours a day in order to stay warm and stay alive. So you know, there’s no sleeping, there’s sleep deprivation.
A good friend of mine came to visit and was refused a visit with me, which is very peculiar. And he began to inquire and somebody let slip in a phone call that I was in a suicide cell. Suicide cells, as the name implies, a suicide cell isn’t designed to stop you from committing suicide, it’s designed to drive you to it. (laughs). So, he knew me enough and knew my character, and knew I wasn’t suicidal. There was a call in campaign to get me out of that situation…after three days on torture cell row. And this was an open secret. Torture cell row was what it was called by prisoners and staff their alike. You know, so everybody knew this was torture cell row. This is where they put you when they really, really hated you. I left there and was placed in segregation. When I arrived in the segregation unit I was sleep deprived and hallucinating. Within two months of that experience that I had there, two other prisoners died there…on torture cell row. And I don’t know the circumstances and I don’t know if anybody even investigated the matter as to what happened to these two prisoners. But I have to wonder if those are just two people who weren’t as lucky as I was to have somebody that cared enough to get them out of that. I don’t know. And I don’t know if anybody else does either. That’s kind of haunted me. I lived through it and they didn’t.
In my writings when I talk about it, I use the phrase ‘simple torture situation.’ You know, and not to use the word torture lightly. You know, torture has a specific definition. The UN has their own definition of what constitutes torture. When you read the CIA counterintelligence and interrogation manuals that have been declassified. We learn from the CIA what they understand to be the ‘simple torture situation.’ You know, it involves long term segregation, deprivation of sensory stimuli, you know, being alone, being alienated, and having nothing to occupy your mind, having no social interaction, essentially, what we would call, solitary confinement; deprivation of food so that you have starvation rations; extreme heat or cold, you know which is what I was subjected to; discomfort, you know, positions that cause discomfort. You know all of these are components of what the CIA developed in terms of a blueprint, a program, a process, for deconstructing a human personality. This is what this is. This is designed to disassemble a human being in the most effective ways. And all of those are the methods that were employed on me for a year in the Special Management Unit at Mansfield Correctional facility. Because even after the three days in torture cell row, I was taken to segregation and I was placed in the cell with Blackjack. Blackjack and I were accused of the Army of the 12 Monkeys involvement, poor Blackjack was just collateral damage to what they were doing to me. But over time, a very short amount of time, since they couldn’t keep me on torture cell row what they did was employ all of those same techniques on us in the cell that we were in.
Our rations went from half, to a quarter. They actually had a guy, another prisoner, who worked in seg, they instructed him, he had to cut our soap in half, and then eventually he had to cut it into quarters, so we got a quarter of a bar of soap every week. We were denied laundry process, so you know, we stank, we smelled bad, and we were hungry. Somebody came back from the Corrections Institution Inspection Committee (CIIC) and was speaking to me, this was in like May or June, and was telling me that they had had the food on the compound and everything seemed fine and I told her — and her name was Joanna Saul — and I told her and this was in June that I’ve been hungry since March (laughs), I haven’t gotten full since March, I don’t know what you’re talking about, but the two of us, we’re starving to death.
So there were starvation rations, there was the filth. During the course of the winter, they put us in a cell where the window wasn’t attached to the outside wall, so we were getting the cold, and this in Ohio, it gets cold there, our cell was as cold as the outdoors and they were messing our mail, they were intercepting mail, no reading material, we weren’t getting recreation like everyone else. On one occasion, they put us into a cell for a period that the suicide cell above us, whenever anyone was—
JPay voice: You have one minute remaining.
SS: — whenever someone would flood the cell, water would pour down on everything that we owned, toilet water from the cell above us, on everything that we had and we would be soaking wet for days. This is the kind of stuff we endured for a year. So this was all— not the toilet water— but everything else was pretty much part of the blueprint that the CIA put together with counter intelligence. So it all kind of went together.
JO: It’s really interesting you discuss [in your book] about these manuals about dissembling a human personality and that sounds just about as horrible of a thing that you could do to a human, but I think it’s important to talk a little bit about the way that US law defines torture. Can you talk about how this definition has enabled and legitimated domestic and foreign torture programs?
SS: Yeah, yeah, that’s important. You kind of have a dual track that’s developing in the United States. You have, in the court system, in the judicial system, you have the idea of prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment and so, as Americans, particularly one like me, who’s educated by the American public school system (laughs), we have this sense that this makes us [think], “Oh, we’re free and clearly we’re not going to do things that are cruel and unusual.” And at the same time, you have the CIA with the help of psychiatrists, psychologists developing and mapping out the limits of human tolerance from the inside-out. Both of these things are happening simultaneously and the question arises, “How can we do this, if we banned cruel and unusual punishment?”
The answer to that is that our court system has a very curious definition of what constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Nothing is considered cruel or unusual unless you suffer a physical injury, you have to have a bruise, or bleeding or some sort of physical manifestation that’s caused by what has been done to you and if you don’t have that, then what’s been done to you is not cruel or unusual. You can’t get punitive damages against prison officials for the dissembling of your mind, that doesn’t count. Essentially. what the courts have done, and I have to think that all of this is very deliberate and very calculated, you have the US Supreme Court and the federal courts very carefully and narrowly defining what constitutes cruel and unusual. and, they happen to exclude all of the things that the US intelligence services are perfecting. Essentially, bloodless torture. And that’s really the term, bloodless torture. You don’t have to lay a finger on someone.
They determined a long time ago that a physical injury is not an effective way to get reliable or actionable information out of someone. If you’re interrogating someone and you’re beating them or taking the thumb screws to them, they’re more likely to lie to you just to get some relief or some respite from what you’re doing to them. If you subject them to long-term deprivation, you know, isolation, deprivation of sensory stimuli, I think the manual says that you can accomplish in just a few days more than what you can accomplish through weeks or months of physical abuse, so they’ve developed this, they developed this method for destroying and dissembling the human personality; at the same time, the courts have turned a blind eye to this and excused it and don’t define that very method of torture as cruel or unusual and that’s why we have the perfection of — torture, torture is an industry, it’s an industry being carried out by the United States’ government. They’re very, very good at it. They have perfected it. I can tell you how good it is. (laughs)
I can— I can tell you exactly how good it is, they’re very very good at this.
JO: Connected to this as well, another thing you talk about in your writing, which is the role of so-called mental health professionals. You sort of call these people “mind cops.” Can you just talk a little bit about the role that psychologists play in torture policies?
SS: I am extremely critical of the role that social sciences— and full disclosure that’s what my degree is in, I have an associates of arts with a concentration in the social sciences, so what that means is that I can walk into any diner and a dollar bill and I could probably get a cup of coffee, that’s what that means— but at the same time, with my own personal experience it has gotten me to see these things a little differently. Because first and foremost we have to consider the CIA didn’t develop the Kubark Counterintelligence and Interrogation Manual and map out the limits of human tolerance to psychological pain without having psychological professionals running that program. Psychologists were doing this. Psychologists were helping the CIA break people and figure out what worked most effectively and quickly. So these are people who have gone to school and have gotten degrees and licensing in order to help their so-called clients and they are then using their knowledge and their acumen to essentially pin human beings down on a rubber mat like a frog in biology class. So that’s the beginning of it.
But the other part of it is in our society we have what I refer to as the ‘Shrinkhood,’ which is kind of like the psychological priesthood. When a cop, or a judge, or a prosecutor tell you you’re bad they call you an offender, or a criminal, or a felon. When a priest, or a rabbi, or an imam, calls you bad, they call you a sinner. When a shrink tells you there’s something wrong with you they put a label on you that indicates what kind of crazy that you are. DSM, the diagnostic manual that psychologists use, right up until very recently, you know, defines homosexuality as a disorder. So if you were gay you were mentally ill. They would diagnose unwed mothers, you know, because they were young and pregnant there was some sort of promiscuity disorder that they suffered from. They were mentally ill for being young and having hormones. So this is the diagnostic manual. And clearly what we’re dealing with is a method for enforcing social norms. We have a concept of normativity that the psychologists are enforcing. So this isn’t in the best interest of the person they’re treating, this is in the best interest of the larger social order. This is in terms of how to keep you going along with the program. So there’s a kind of mind cop element to this. And it’s very powerful particularly because we know we’re supposed to hate cops, we know we’re supposed to hate prosecutors. I can’t speak for everybody but with priests and rabbis and imams, we have our healthy suspicions of their true motives. But psychologists have this cloak of scientific–that they’re objective–and that all of this is based on something that’s unquestionable. It’s incredibly dangerous for that reason. Of course when you talk about the prison complex, specifically, and how these professionals are employed, they come in, and the true danger with this is that the people who work in the psychology department are seemingly friendly and caring and compassionate and they’re here for your benefit–or so you think. These are the people you talk to when you’re having problems. No. You are not they’re client, you know, you’re not their patient. They’re getting paid by the state, the government, the prison pays them. And the prison gives them their marching orders. There’s something that you mentioned when we were talking before about how they enforce certain policies that you can’t really even get attention until you hurt yourself. You know, you have to physically hurt yourself before any of these people are actually going to pay attention to you. And that’s not something that they would do if they really cared, on a human level, about the people who are in these cages. You have to be very skeptical as to what they’re true motives are. I mean I have to think about it like this too, you know, not to offend, but if you graduated and you have your doctorate in the social sciences. How bad do your grades have to be that you ended up working in a prison? (laughs) Certainly you have the occasional dogooder, I’m sure and I hope I haven’t offended the occasional dogooder. But they had psychologists at the Nazi prison camps also. You know, just to point that out.
JO: I know you’re mentioning there that story about people having to harm themselves in order to get mental health care is something I hear a lot. Everytime you hear it, it kind of makes your skin crawl. It’s really uncomfortable, you know, even to imagine something so horrible as that. And then also I’ve heard stories of psychologists using tear gas on people and that really seems to go against HIPPA and just about everything.
SS: Just one quick story. It just occurred to me. On one occasion, when my face was ground into the floor, this was when I was at Toledo Correctional. In order to avoid a criminal investigation of what happened to me, because staff had assaulted me and I had visible injuries. The psychologists there had me sent to the Residential Treatment Unit clear across the state. And I was under a 30-day evaluation to find out if I was delusional. During that 30 days my wounds healed miraculously and I came back and there was no way to investigate the assault then. So that tells you how much the psychologists and the social scientist professionals work so closely with the security staff and everyone else. They cover for each other that way. When I arrived at the Residential Treatment Unit, you know, during intake, the mental health professional had a questionaire on a clipboard and was asking me questions. And she seemed a little puzzled about what was going on as I was sitting there handcuffed and belly chained with wounds on my face. And she said, “It says here, they think you’re delusional. Do you think you’re delusional?” So I said, “Well, I think I was assaulted and that I have injuries to my face and that they’re hiding me here. Do you see the injuries on my face?” And she said, “Yeah.” And I said, “I don’t know, maybe we’re both delusional.” (laughs) And she wrote that down. That’s in my mental health file.
JO: It’s good that you can laugh about that.
SS: What’s that?
JO: I said it’s good that you can laugh about that.
SS: Oh yeah well you kind of have to, you know, it’s either laugh or cry. In the larger context it’s all so bewildering.
JO: Connected to this torture program that we’ve sort of been laying out here is the sexual assualt that you experienced from this man Trevor Clarke who I guess is a lawyer/interogator, unless you call him a fuckweasle. But he functioned as a liason the Department of Corrections in Ohio and the FBI. To the extent you’re comfortable with can you a little bit about what happened and how you made sense of this by connecting it to the sexual elements of the torture programs at Abu-Ghraib and Guantanomo?
SS: We had, and by then, there were four prisoners. It was myself and Blackjack, two other prisoners. We were all charged with connection to the Army of the 12 Monkeys at Mansfield. What the Army of the 12 Monkeys had done, they had fomented essentially an insurrection by distributing pamphlets and fliers all over the compound. Prisoners had been wilding out and essentially attacking, you know, the normal operation of the prison. That’s what they had been doing. And so, when I wrote my critique of Jpay, prison officials took the opportunity to equate my criticism of policy with being a member of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. The irony is that the Army of the 12 Monkeys never mentioned JPay. So their argument, as irrational as this is, and this is something Trevor Clarke had developed, as their lawyer, he’s the one that wrote out this argument. But the argument essentially is that because I criticized JPay, it proves I think just like the hooligans who never criticized JPay. So that’s what made me the leader of a group that didn’t think like me. So we had been through some sort of sham disciplinary process. And we were about six months in, on the year of torture that we experienced.
Trevor Clarke. I had first had my encounters with him when my writings had been found in the property of some ELF suspects. The FBI had contacted the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and they’re FBI liaison guy was Trevor Clarke. He’s one of the attorneys. And it appears as though he had kind of exclusive contact with the FBI. So it’s like nobody ever checked his homework. The FBI called him and he was the one who essentially told the entire prison complex, “This is what the FBI wants.” And no one ever questioned him.
Trevor Clarke came to Mansfield Correctional in order to interrogate the four of us, the four prisoners accused of 12 Monkey affiliation. So when he called me in, there was another official in the room for most of the interview and Trevor Clarke had his phone face up on the desk so that the FBI could listen in. And it was during this conversation, it was during this interrogation that he told me that the FBI was bringing federal charges against me because my typewriter matched the material of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Just to be clear, the 12 Monkey materials had been computer generated, because I had seen them, you know, they had been all over the compound. I had seen the 12 Monkey materials. And they weren;t typed on a typewriter. So–(laughs). So I knew this guy was lying and I told him. I said, “The FBI’s not bringing the charges against me.” I already knew that to be not true.
I don’t know what he was intending to do. I think he was trying to get information out of me by scaring me and lying to me. But I’m not sure. During the course of this he seemed a little bit confused, jittery, and sweating profusely and constantly playing with his nose. I don’t know much about the whole drug subculture, I don’t know anything about that. But Blackjack did. So after my interview and his interview with this guy, I was questioning this guy’s behavior. You know, Trevor Clarke seemed very weird. And Blackjack told me, “Oh yeah that guy was definitely coked up.” (Laughs). That was his response. So that may or may not be the case, but Blackjack knows a thing or two about people he has seen coked up and he was fairly certain that that was what was going on with Trevor Clarke.
But at the end of this the other official in the room went out to get somebody to escort me back to my cell, you know security staff. And Trevor Clarke asked me if I wanted to make this go away. And I said that I did, you know I didn’t want a disciplinary action to happen. So he motioned me around the desk and as I walked around the side of the desk he set some papers in front of me and I looked at them and they didn’t seem to be relevant to anything and I was a little confused. And that’s when he used the palm of his hand and he cupped my genitals with his hand. He told me that if I wanted this to go away I would have to drop my pants and spin around. And I was caught like a deer in the headlights. You know it was just very shocking and very surprising.
I was cuffed and shackled and belly-chained at the time so I don’t even know how’d go about dropping my pants, but I was just kind of stunned and when I didn’t respond, he just motioned me back to my chair and I sat down and I didn’t say a word and security staff came to get me and took me back to the cell, didn’t say anything to anybody, first, because I didn’t think anyone would believe me and second, it just seemed so strange. So some months and a year later [unclear at 40:46] I sent out an email mentioning this and within days of sending the email, all of my communications were shut down because Trevor Clarke was still monitoring all of my communications and later on, the Ohio prison system admitted in writing to my then-attorney Richard Berger that they had shut down my communications at least in part because my claim of sexual assault by Trevor Clarke, so they silenced me, admittedly, for trying to blow the whistle on somebody engaging in sexual assault that was an official of the Ohio prison system, which is totally illegal.
The experience I had of this, I’m pretty resilient and I wouldn’t say I’m exactly psychologically— I wouldn’t say I’m so much psychologically scared by this inappropriate behavior of his as I am from all of the things that he did after that in order to silence me, in order to stop me from reporting this. For me, the sexual assault itself wasn’t so incredibly traumatic, but it is made me wonder, where this originate because I can easily write this off as he was just a coked-up lawyer and he did something inappropriate and perhaps this was his own personal inclinations and he’s just a creep, but then, in a larger context, I had to ask myself, if perhaps this is the thing, when you look at the torture program, the [unclear at 42:49] torture program at places like Abu Ghraib that were exposed, you have a sexual component to the CIA torture program and I have to imagine that the sexual component is an intergral part to this because you see it again and again as a pattern.
So apparently, the sexual degradation and humiliation is somewhat effective for what the CIA is attempting to do to their victims and when we make the comparison here that the FBI—because all of these intelligence agencies are effectively integrated and the FBI is integrated with all of the prisons and all of the state agencies—this is all one seamless fabric, coverment, this intelligence network that includes people like Trevor Clarke. When we see that the FBI is employing domestically what the CIA was doing at Abu Ghraib, where they formed the ass pyramid of their victims and took pictures of them and had electrodes attached to their genitals when they’re wearing a black hood on their heads and that this was a big party atmosphere while they’re doing this to them, and then we look at this seemingly isolated incident of him cupping my genitals with the phone face up on the desk for the entire time so that the FBI can listen in right up until he does this, it’s a wonder if maybe there was some sort of instruction from on high to include this component of the sexual abuse — it appears as though, the intelligent services have determined that sexual assault is an effective way to neutralize people, because that’s what they do. They include that component. So I have to wonder if this was Trevor Clarke just being creepy all on his own or if the FBI is itself just one, large, sprawling network of creepitude.
JO: I think it’s a really brave thing to talk about this and all the other elements of the torture program that we have laid out, so really grateful for you for doing that. So I want to move from here to the resistance elements of your writing, which I think are very interesting.
So you have this essay “The Colonizer’s Corpse: A Libratory Approach to Maintaining Mental Health While Subject to Isolation in Prison,” and I know personally that I have sent this to people and I know people that have read this in prison and a lot of people are really inspired by this. In this essay, you contend that it’s morally and psychologically beneficial for incarcerated people to engage in collective revolutionary and violent action to oppose the torture structures of the state. Can you talk about the impetus for this essay, which connects back to Joanna Soul, who we were talking about earlier, and why you believe this and what this means to you?
SS: So the title was taken from Frantz Fanon, who was then in Algeria, who was a psychologist, and he said something to the effect of, and I don’t know if I am getting this exactly right, that for the colonized, liberation springs forth from the corpse of the colonizer, right, and he was a proponent of political violence and I am also. So that’s where I took the title, so yeah, the essay came about, and it’s in Opposing Torture also, which is coming out, the book, but standing alone, “Colonizers’ Corpse” came about as an essay during the course of the torture program when Blackjack and I were being subjected to torture, the Executive Director of the Corrections Institution Inspection Committee, Joanna Saul, came around and we had explained to her what it is that we have been experiencing and she had been taking notes right up until Trevor Clarke was the one that ordered this and she said that, “If Trevor Clarke’s involved in this, there is nothing I can do.” Essentially, if Trevor Clarke’s involved, this is an FBI program and there is nothing I can do to help you.
So she sent out mail to a number of us prisoners, a form letter, who had done a great deal of time either in solitary confinement or in segregation, asking for us to provide tips and advice for other prisoners who are going to be facing long term segregation or solitary confinement. So I found this very curious that they’re asking for us to give advice to other prisoners on how to survive the thing that the state is subjecting prisoners to. Because implicitly that’s admitting to me, at least by my thinking, that they know that this is having a distorting, bad effect on the humans that are experiencing this.
So back to the beginnings of how I began formulating my response as The Colonizers Corpse, where I’m advocating that a healthy approach to facing solitary confinement and long term segregation is first a kind of self honesty. The language we use, even in our own head, impacts our worldview, our frame of reference. So I think it’s important that we recognize that anyone who is subjecting you to what the CIA calls, ‘the simple torture situation,’ they are not your friend, they’re not doing you any good. They are deliberately harming you. And the proof of that is that the people who are most responsible for keeping this in check are the ones that are handing you a colored brochure with advice on how not to go nuts, rather than stop the program entirely in the first place. I found that particularly reprehensible.
I think it was important we pay attention to our language and the concepts we’re using in our frames of reference. And instead of thinking of it as ‘corrections officer’ as if somebody is correcting someone and ‘offender’ or, you know, ‘criminal’ or ‘prisoner’ that we see things in the terms that the CIA put them. It’s the individual and his tormenter. You know, they use the word tormenter for the person who is inflicting the torture. So this is a torture sitaution and it’s being imposed. And let’s face it, people who torture are not nice people. You know, nice people don’t do that. This isn’t good people. So this isn’t for public benefit that this is being done. This is done to distort and destroy a human being.
So there’s a compantant in this that if you’re doing me harm, and I know that you’re doing me harm, and I value myself, then I have to behave in a way that reflects my own self value. I have to stop you from harming me. And in the larger context, if I’m being subjected to torture, to what you know to be torture and you’re inflicting it upon me. Then I have a duty, not just to stop you from doing this to me, but I have duty to stop you from doing this to anyone else as well. My own psychological health requires me to behave in a way that is in my own best interests, that is in the interests of furthering my own well being. So that being the case, the only thing that you can do when you’re subjected to the ‘simple torture situation’ is to oppose it and to oppose it with every fiber of your being. You know, you have to wake up and go to bed and live every moment, trying to figure out how to become the undoing of the program being waged against you–and to have others join you. Because it’s not enough to do it by yourself because one individual person isn’t powerful enough to do that. You know, so you have to build allies, you have to network with others, you have to figure out methods for taking the system down. And that’s a psychologically healthy approach to being in this kind of a situation.
So that’s what I wrote, in response to their request for advice to prisoners who were facing this kind of a scenario. And sort of related to this, later on, when I was at Lucasville, I received a conduct report that was written by one of Trevor Clarke’s cohorts in the Central Office, Paul Schumaker. And in it, he essentially accessed me, because I had written a statement opposing torture, and in it I was, very much like Colonizer’s Corpse, I was advocating that even people in the free world had and interest in trying to make the torturers stop and, you know, by any means necessary, essentially. And so in the conduct report that Paul Schumaker wrote he accused me of threatening all of the employees of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction by opposing torture and advocating that people employ political violence to stop torturers. So I thought that kind of curious, that somebody at Central Office would make such a damning admission [about] the corrections complex. Because remember, I’m only saying that we should inflict political violence on people who engage in torture. And if it’s his contention that what I said threatens everyone who works for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, then implicitly he’s admitting that everyone who works for the Ohio prison system is engaging in torture. So even from his own conception, he acknowledges that the job that they do is to further the torture complex. And I found that very revealing, you know, in a backhanded kind of way. That even they know that this is a sprawling torture complex. You know, it’s not in the public interest to torture people and it’s what they do.
I have, particulalry since being subjected to torture, I have come to recognize the utter bankruptcy of a purley nonviolent approach to trying to change anything. Case and point, and it’s not my own personal experience. But Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army in the summer of I think 1980, a number of Irish Republican Army prisoners went on hunger strike to get recognition of their political prisoner status. They would join the hunger strike every week or two, there would be another person joining the hunger strike, and over the course of the summer you had all of these IRA prisoners on hunger strike. And the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, just said, “No.” Something like 13 of those hunger strikers died. Day after day after day there was another death and another death and another death. And the government just said, “Yeah, no, we don’t care.” You know, you had international media attention, you had protests in the parking lot. This was very publicly unpopular. You know, politically unpopular and the government just said, “Yeah, yeah we don’t care. Go ahead.”
So I think that was kind of an instructive anecdote there for a government’s approach to nonviolent resistance. You know, let’s not forget that there were a million people marching in the street in New York City opposing the impending invasion of Iraq the day before George W. invaded Iraq. He doesn’t care. (laughs) If you’re not tipping over cop cars, if you’re not blowing anything up, they can’t hear you. They don’t speak that language.
So I have been accused on several occasions of inspiring the kinds of responses that government really doesn’t like. So yeah, I have quite a reputation, if you ask prison officials, they’ll tell you that I’m incredibly dangerous. But yeah, I step around the worms on the sidewalk after it rains, you know, just so you know.
JO: I guess moving more exciting and wonderful things, you’re getting married pretty soon. I just wanted to offer my congratulations. Can you talk a little bit about what love means to you in the context of your revolutionary politics and also this incessant repression that you’ve been facing?
SS: Yeah, since 2014 I’ve been doing the radio show with The Final Straw and SeanSwain.0rg has been online for, oh I don’t know, a long time. You know, my writing is posted there. And I’ve been pretty outspoken and vocal in advocating for radical causes. When I do so I am aware that there is a very possibility, a very real potential for consequences–that speaking out is going to get me kicked in the head. Sooner or later, the repression happens. I’ve gone, at one time, more than a year without communication with my family or friends, you know on a communication blackout entirely. I just came off of a six month suspension of my communications because of something I said on The Final Straw Radio Show, which was, you know, regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, and they didn’t deem anything wrong with what I said. But apparently prison officials, under the direction of the FBI, pulled the plug on all of my communications and decided, you know, that they were just going to punish me anyway–for six months. That’s really harmful to me and to the people I love.
So it’s my hope that the people who tune in to listen and the people who read know that what motivates me to say the things I say is love. That I know from my own experience in suffering that there are other people who are also suffering, that they’ve experienced trauma and alienation, that maybe they feel desperate, maybe they’re broke, maybe they’re at wit’s end. We live in these systems that grind us down and maybe whatever it is that I’m sharing benefits them in some way. Maybe it’s just that there is somebody else out there that understands how they feel because I’ve been there also. Or maybe it inspires them to think of their situation in a new way. But I think that’s important because I think the motive force for what moves humans is love, the ability to recognize the value of another in a substantive way, you know in an active way and to want the same happiness and freedom for someone else that you want for yourself. It’s not good enough for me to achieve my own freedom from these terrible systems that oppress, if I leave behind a million people who are still trapped in those cages. I don’t know how I would be able to sleep at night if I managed to achieve for myself what I wasn’t striving or struggling for for others. So I think that’s important, that that’s what essentially defines us. You know, that’s the thing that we leave behind. And I think that’s important.
So yeah. Lauren found me. When we’re talking about this interpersonal kind of romantic love, I feel very fortunate, and this isn’t easy, you know in the circumstance that I’m in, you know, particularly for Lauren. This is not an easy scenario here because I’m still a captive and there’s just no guarantee of when I’m ever going to get out. And for whatever reason, Lauren found me and chose me. And I feel very fortunate to be in a situation like this where it’s not that I simply respect them, I admire them, because of everything that Lauren has also been through in their own experience. And to transcend all of that and to be where their at now and to be so loving and caring and compassionate and capable–like you know my every interaction with Lauren I come away from it saying to myself something to the effect of, “Oh wow.” Like every time, you know, I’m just amazed. You know, this beautiful life that’s in the world, especially after the torture program that I experienced and endured and then everything else that’s happened, you know the illegal rendition, the balcksiting, you know, everything that’s happened. I think I had come into this with Lauren with a particular ability to appreciate just how fortunate I am and just how amazing Lauren is. Because it’s like somebody that has experienced 40 straight days of thunderstorms and rain and darkness, you know having a chance to see sunlight. So this is an experience for me, you know, like holding something very delicate in your hand–for me. And I’m grateful, every day. I’m hoping to get out soon. You know, we’re supposed to be getting married. And I’m hoping to get out soon. Lauren is uprooting their whole life and coming to Ohio in order to set up a place for me to parole to. When I see the parole board in August, you know we’re hopeful that I get to come home to Lauren. I can honestly say that I’ll wake up everyday and not take one second of that joy for granted. So yeah there’s that. I’m very grateful. I’m very grateful.
JO: Yeah that’s really beautiful. I guess building off that I wanted to ask you, like you know when they shut off your communications for six months, they’re disrupting two ways of communication. And I know this, I have a friend who I haven’t spoken to since August, who I love very much. And they really are shutting off two forms of communication and you talked about this a little bit, how that’s part of the torture that you’re experiencing, because it’s hurting your friends and family on the outside. Could you just talk about that a little bit and some of the relationships that you have with people that were sort of interrupted?
SS: Oh sure, yeah. When the FBI directs Virginia prison officials to shut off my communications for six months, it’s not just shutting down mine. You know, it’s not just shutting down what I say to other people, it’s shutting down what they say to me. It’s essentially severing a relationship. In my own circumstance, well my mom for instance. Last March my dad died and they had been together for more than 50 years, my mom and my dad. So this was particularly just crushing to my mom. And I don’t have any siblings and my mom is essentially alone in New Mexico. So I’m really all she has. And last September when prison officials shut down my communications, you know I didn’t have a disciplinary process, there was just nothing, you know, they flip a switch and I’m gone, you know from the lives of the people I love. And my mom didn’t even know why. The only form of communication I officially had was US mail, but they were also stealing and throwing that away also. You know, they’re just plausibly deniably denying me any interaction with anyone at any time. This was particularly hard for my mom, you know, Covid-19, my mom was, well 75 then, 76 now, you know isolated from everyone and I’m the only person she has. And for six months there’s just absolute silence.
There’s my mom. There’s Atom Bomb. Atom Bomb’s a disable vet and he has his own struggles and he has me listed as his second person in terms of his own mental wellbeing and who it is he confides in and talks to and interacts with. And when my communications are down, you know, for six months at a time, then I’m not there. You know, this is somebody who relies on me, you know as an integral part of his life.
And then of course there’s Lauren. You know we’re supposed to be getting married. I am that significant other person in their life. And suddenly I’m just gone. So this is painful. This is painful to other people. And I think it’s designed that way. I think part of the torture that they inflict on me, for being outspoken and telling the truth about them. Part of the torture is to inflict this kind of intolerable pain on my loved ones. So I’m sitting in here not knowing what’s going on with their health and wellbeing. I’m not knowing what’s going on [with] them. They don’t know if I’m alive or dead, you know I had Covid twice. (laughs) I didn’t just get it once, I got it twice. So they don’t know if I’m on a ventilator, if I’m dead. They don’t know what’s going on with me, they have no clue. And that’s got to be very hard for them. And then while I’m in here I know how this has to be impacting the people I love. And so it becomes a kind of intolerable pain that they’re inflicting. And it’s deliberate, this has got to be deliberate. This is what they do. This is what they’re really good at, you know crushing the souls of people. And I’m fortunate to have such good people around me, who care and have the strength, fortunately for them and for me, who have the strength to endure this and weather the storm of all of this. And they’re very incredible people and I’m lucky for that. I’m lucky for that.
JO: Yeah that’s also a very beautiful thing. It’s really cool to think about how people that are incarcerated continue to be in supportive roles with people out here and that’s something I think that is very much lost in the mainstream narratives about what people in prison do.
SS: If you think about this in this context it’s a very revolutionary and subversive thing because the prison complex has a lot of power over a lot of things. You know, it’s got 360 degree, full spectrum power over every aspect of my life. But the one thing it can’t control is how we as human beings, as individual human beings, feel about each other. And to love someone else can be a very revolutionary and subversive act. You know, because that connection can transcend all of their fences. That love between people can make its way through those bars. Cement walls can’t stop that. So in that sense the state is very powerless. You know the fart goblin establishment can march around and do a lot of terrible things. But they can’t stop us from caring about each other.
JO: I’m kind of reminded of Asatta Shakur’s poem where she says love is like acid, it eats away walls and bars. But yeah. 100 percent. It’s really cool.
SS: Thank you.
JO: In closing I’d just like to give you space to talk about your efforts to get international recognition that basically everything we’ve described here has actually happened and that the United States does in fact have a domestic torture program. What have you been working on around that?
SS: Oh yeah. I had filed claims with the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights which is part of the Organization of American States, the OAS. The US is a member state, it’s kind of a sister organization to the UN. It’s a treaty organization. The Inter-American Commision on Human Rights, the IACHR, is kind of like the international court. I filed claims of human rights abuses against the United States in the midst of the torture program that I was experiencing. And this has been a long process going all the way back to 2012. But this past December, the IACHR issued a ruling that was kind of historic in scope, allowing for the first time, claims of domestic torture to go forward against the United States in my case. It’s now case number 14.146 in the IACHR. I think this is significant because previously claims of domestic torture have not proceeded past this stage. I’m now at the merits stage, which is kind of like the pre-trial and trial stage of my claims. I think this is significant, you know, because if I win and I think my case is pretty good, then what we’re gonna have is an international body that now recognizes that the United States has had and engaged in and perhaps still engages in a domestic torture program. In light of all of the other developments that are happening, socially and culturally and politically, I’m hoping that this rises to the level of some sort of consciousness, that it gets some sort of visibility in the public discourse. Because we’re looking at the emergence and a recognition of Black Lives Matter and all of the protests that were happening there and we’re starting to wrap our minds around this idea of the structural and systemic racism and the real ulterior agendas that these larger structures and institutions serve. And I think this speaks to part of that, you know the fact that we have inside of this complex, you know, this prison industrial complex, we have a domestic torture program that’s being implemented. And what this means and what does this say about us as Americans? What does this say about the United States? And is this who we want to be? When Abu-Ghraib was exposed, when there was the whistleblower, John Kiriakou who exposed the foriegn torture program, you know there was some public discourse and dialogue and there was some public soul searching and handwringing and so far we haven’t had that. (laughs) You know, so far the mainstream media has been somewhat silent on the question of torture. And hopefully that changes.
JO: Yeah, yeah, really hope that we can all work towards changing that. Sean, you know I really, really appreciate you taking the time here for this interview. I think it’s really brave considering the retaliation that you had faced for doing this kind of stuff over the years.
SS: Yeah thanks for having me, I appreciate the forum. Yeah I’m grateful that you had me here. Thank you.
JO: That was our conversation with Sean Swain who we very much hope gets parole in August and comes home to a place where he can speak the truth and not get hit in the head with a hammer. We also spoke to Sean’s partner Lauren Swain about their beautiful relationship. Lauren is a gender studies student, roller derby player, and cat mom. They are an abolitionist organizer and a huge part of the Swainiacs, which is the movement to free Sean.
Little Black Train plays again
JO: To start off, I just wanted to give you a few moments to introduce yourself and tell people who you are.
LS: Well my name is Lauren, I’m Sean Swain’s partner. Sean Swain is an anarchist, a long-term anarchist prisoner who’s been incarcerated for 30 years. I’m a gender studies student, I’m a roller derby player, I’m a cat mom, and I love plants.
JO: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about how you were introduced to Sean and why his reporting and his struggles spoke to you?
LS: Well, I actually was introduced to Sean through Final Straw Radio. I bought a folk punk CD and on the inside of the flap, it had a bunch of podcasts that were listed that were worth listening to and Final Straw was one of them. So I started listening to Final Straw and listening to Sean’s segments and as a baby activist/anarchist/feminist, I feel like Sean helped carve my path as an anarchist. He brought up a lot of things that I wouldn’t think about normally and it got me thinking about systems and corruption and things like that, that I would have never thought about so Sean helped forge my path as an identified anarchist today.
JO: Obviously, you took a step to reach out to Sean. Can you share a little about what your conversations were like and what it was like to meet this person who inspired you in the way that you just described?
LS: Yeah. It was weird because for years, I would sit at my desk and I would write letters to Sean and I would crumple them up and throw them because I was always so super intimidated because he always sounds so eloquent on the radio and so I was like, “This guy’s really smart. I don’t know how to talk to him.” It was August of this year  and I had it in my head like, “Okay, I’m gonna write to Sean. This is it. Fuck it.”
So I sent him a letter being like, “Hi, my name is Lauren. I’ve been listening to you for years, I live in Canada. I’m a gender queer individual. I really like what you’ve been saying for all of these years. I play roller derby.” I wasn’t expecting anything back because Sean has hundreds of letters at any given time and he actually wrote back and we talked a lot about roller derby because he was super interested in that and he told me about one of his screenplays that he had written called Being Bob, which coincidentally had roller derby involved in the screenplay and then it kind of took off from there and we started writing back and forth and when his communications were up, he called me and we video chatted once and we’ve been communicating ever since.
JO: Sounds cool. So now you guys are getting married, which is pretty awesome. Really want to express my congratulations about that. Can you talk about what it’s like to be in a romantic relationship with someone who the state has invested so much into silencing and demonizing as well?
LS: Sean seems like this big bad anarchist and he’s an anarchist, but he’s not big and bad. We talk on the phone and I’ll be like, “You’re so stupid. Please be quiet.” He makes me laugh and it’s really difficult and I don’t think people realize that. I was in a social justice class and we were talking about the prison industrial complex and my prof asked, “Well, do you think it should be abolished?” And a lot of people were saying, “People who commit serious crimes should be incarcerated, but maybe people with lesser charges like marijuana crimes or with petty crimes should be let out,” and I sat back and was like, “Woah, woah, woah.” It really upset me because people, especially the people kind of outside prison relationships or prison networks, really base assumptions on what they read on paper and especially for Sean, a lot of people have demonized him and hung him out to dry because of his charge of aggravated murder, but they don’t necessarily know the story behind what happened and they don’t know the circumstances.
One of the things that they don’t read on paper is that Sean is one of the most caring individuals I know, he’s one of the most caring and loving individuals I know. It’s really hard and really draining to feel like you have to defend your relationship with somebody that people don’t necessarily understand and it’s also hard because Sean’s communications have been cut off for six months at a time, so I would not hear from him. So I was left wondering if he had covid in prison, if he was okay, if he had been sent to the SHU, or what was going on. For six months, I had no idea what was going on with my partner. I couldn’t just walk outside or call him or hold his hand or watch a movie with him like most couples. There’s definitely challenges with it but it’s definitely worth it because Sean is —phe’s just an amazing person.
JO: I want to explore this a little bit further ‘cause I relate a lot to what you were just saying because my dad was a political prisoner, he was incarcerated for sabotage, and I really saw the Instagram video that you made recently about this and I related a lot especially to the emotions that you’re describing and as much as you feel comfortable, can you talk a little bit about what it feels like when those narratives are being invoked and you’re just holding that space and what’s that like for you?
LS: It’s really weird because I never thought that I would never be in a relationship obviously with someone in prison, let alone someone twice my age. Obviously, academia‘s a certain space, it’s inaccessible to a lot of people, but I had thought that within my program, there was a lot of radical individuals and there are, I just thought, that more so than not, people would understand that the carceral system is not there to serve people, it’s not there to protect us, it’s there to uphold capitalism and patriarchy and racism. It’s really, really difficult and I’m really lucky to have friends around me who are super accepting of my relationship with Sean, who check in with me, who are there to support me, but it’s really difficult and really upsetting and really hard to hold space when people are — I don’t know if I can swear— talking shit about—
JO: You can.
LS: Okay, great — talking shit about your partner, making vast assumptions like “Violent people should be locked up.” But you don’t know the circumstances behind their charges, like Sean was defending himself because someone broke into his home and he got 30 years and to make an assumption that just because people are incarcerated for violent crimes doesn’t necessarily mean they’re inherently violent people.
The justice system is corrupt and broken and it’s not there to protect us — it’s really difficult and really upsetting.
JO: I think the cat is weighing in, in agreement.
LS: She is. She wants to go on a walk, she’s meowing.
JO: That’s fair. Is there more you want to say about that?
LS: Yeah. It’s just really hard and sometimes I feel exhausted, kind of defending my position, defending the right to essentially love somebody. I feel like I almost developed a narrative, “Thank you for your concern, but Sean is a good person,” “Thank you for your concern, but xyz.”
When I first got into a relationship with Sean, everybody was like, “Woh, woh, woh” because I had just broken up with a partner of seven years, which was for the best, but they just saw me jumping into a relationship with somebody in prison and it was like, “What the fuck is going on?”
So a lot of my friends were like, “We just want to make sure you’re okay and this is a lot,” and “Are you going off the deep end?” And my parents are not accepting, they won’t talk about Sean, they won’t let me talk about Sean, they just don’t
JO: That’s terrible.
LS: It’s really, really hard, like when Sean calls and I’m on the phone with my mom, I just say that I have to go because I can’t be like, “Sean’s calling,” [or], “I have to go, my partner’s calling,” which she just refuses to accept that I have a relationship with someone who’s incarcerated, which is just silly because they are just people.
JO: This is something I wanted to ask you from your perspective, because this is real, real serious emotional struggle that a lot of people are going through right now. Can you talk a little bit about how people can actually support you with those emotional struggles that you are dealing with?
LS: I would first of all educate yourself on the carceral system and the veil behind it because it’s important to recognize that, like I’ve said, it’s not necessarily there to protect and uphold justice. Like we know that there’s mass incarceration of Black individuals in order to uphold white supremacy and we know that the police uphold white supremacy as they were built on — it was from the plantation to the carceral system, the police were there to catch — they were slave catchers. The carceral system is not necessarily a system to protect you from violent people, or there to protect you from people who shouldn’t be in society and I think that recognizing that and recognizing that even though people commit crimes that they are people at heart and they do have emotions and they are people outside of the crimes that they committed.
JO: But if it’s someone you know, like a friend of yours, like what’s a positive way to relate? I know that personally I’ve really struggled with this that people think that they understand and they don’t and that being pretty hard to.
LS: Yeah I think unless you’re here it’s hard to fully understand being in a relationship or having a relationship with somebody who’s incarcerated, but I just think being empathetic and giving me space to talk about mine and Sean’s relationship because it’s really happy and it’s the happiest I’ve been in my whole dating life for like a decade. I think just holding space for having open and happy conversations about Sean is a way that I find people can be really supportive, instead of walking on eggshells around people because they don’t necessarily want to talk about it — just being there when times are hard and being there when times are good
JO: I think we were just talking about [how] Sean’s communication had been shut off for six months for no reason, but it’s back [as of] the last week and a half or whatever, just describe that, what that was like to get that news and talk to Sean after such a long period.
LS: Oh, man. I was really fortunate to have put together an international Sean Swain defense committee, so it’s me and a couple of — well we refer to ourselves as the Swainiacs — so we do a lot of social media and reaching out to activist groups and to lawyers and all of that jazz. It was wild, I got an email and he was like, “Guess who’s back, back again,” like the Eminem song and “Oh yeah that’s definitely Sean.”
It was — I was shaking, I was crying, it was the most, it was like a kid on Christmas, like I finally get to talk to my partner, we got to video chat for the second time this morning and it was the best feeling in the world.
JO: Yeah that’s really awesome. Related to that, all this work that you do to support to support Sean, the writer — one of my favorite writers —Jackie Wong has called this abolitionist practice or really praxis has called this a “politics of love” because it’s what you’re doing to help people is this basic stuff, communicating with them, advocating for them not to be tortured, advocating for basic things, like their property not to be stolen. Do you conceptualize the work that you do to support Sean as political and can you talk about that a little?
LS: I guess it’s political in a science because Sean has been suppressed for so long by the system to not talk and shut up and be quiet so I feel like inherently my job, as a partner and as an advocate for Sean, is getting his message out there via social media, via reaching out to the media or what have you so I guess inherently it is political because I’m a funnel for Sean’s words to get out to the general public which is really important.
JO: I think even beyond the explicitly political things, I think that caring for someone that the State is intentionally not caring for could be conceptualized as political.
LS: Yeah I think so. I think just having space for, I don’t know, just having a space when we video chat, I feel that Sean’s able to escape the reality of living in prison because we just laugh for an hour straight and calling each other we’re both able — especially Sean — [laughs] not physically, let our hair down, because we’re both bald, it’s a space where Sean can laugh and live outside of the cell he’s in or he can — we tell silly jokes or we tell each other things that we don’t know about each other. He wants to hear about my day or we talk about recipes, so it’s just an escape outside of reality, which I think is really needed for him.
JO: Yeah, I think everyone really needs that, but I think it’s so important that you hold that space for Sean, specifically because of all of the people that don’t want that space to exist. But, yeah, I also know that — and of course with this question it’s whatever you feel comfortable with — but I know that you’re a survivor of sexualized violence and often times, certainly as an abolitionist I’m sure you’ve come across this a million times, but the narrative that “The problem with abolitionists is that abolitionists are attacking survivors,” because we’re advocating for the release of people from prison and [what those skeptical of abolitionist might say] this is going to cause problems around that, would you like to speak a little bit about this and how this narrative is perhaps patronizing to a certain degree and false to other degrees?
LS: I’m actually doing my masters’ thesis along the lines of this whole question and I have so many friends and I myself have gone to the police, “Help. I’ve been assaulted,” and nothing happens, but also, there’s been like warehouses and warehouses found of untested rape kits. I think it’s really patronizing as a survivor to say, “If you abolish the prisons, rapists will go [free].” That’s not true, rapists are in our society right now. My [rapist] was not persecuted [sic], neither was my friend’s and neither was that friend’s and neither was that friend’s. I just find it really upsetting and ruffling and patronizing to be like, “You can’t abolish the prisons because rapists will walk free,” because they’re already walking free.
JO: Yeah there’s a lot of truth there. Something I was talking to Sean about in the conversations that we’ve had is that he’s experienced this immense amount of trauma, it’s scary to think about to a certain degree. He’s learned about, or at least he says that he’s learned about how to help others deal with that and he talks about how he has a friend who’s a war veteran, who’s disabled and traumatized and they talk and it’s very productive I think for both of them. Would you like to speak about that a little bit about that in your relationship with Sean and has he been able to deal with some of the trauma of all of the different things that you’ve described here?
LS: Sean has been such a blessing in terms of processing trauma, especially as a sexualized femme survivor. I know that before I met Sean that I never really had a healthy relationship with my own body, so it was really hard for me to conceptualize even having a healthy relationship with my body, like having a healthy form of sexuality again and I don’t know how, but Sean has really helped me reconnect with my body and develop a healthy relationship with who I am and my body and he’s given me the room to grow into myself and other relationships I’ve had, I’ve tried to conform myself into what people have wanted me to be and that’s really exhausting and really hard, but with Seann, there’s no expectations and there’s no nothing and he kind of just lets me do my thing and he has really helped me reconnect with myself after trauma and he’s helped me process it as a really supportive partner and yeah, he’s amazing.
JO: And so, I think it’s very clear based on this conversation this is a very beautiful relationship, I want to ask you how you’ve had to go through a lot just to make this relationship happen and you had to go through a lot [in] the process of getting married, can you share a little bit about what the State has been doing essentially to prevent essentially this beautiful thing that you and Sean are creating?
LS: Obviously cutting off Sean’s communications for six months was really, really, really difficult in our relationship, [so] in that sense the State was really suppressing our ability to communicate, but in terms of marriage, I can’t even tell you how many hoops and how much tape we’ve had to cut through and how many people we’ve had to email and they’ve never gotten back to us, they tell us to email this person, we’ve had to email that person, it’s been a huge process even getting to the right people just to get married and I feel like a lot of people often take that for granted, but there’s been so much pushback. They were like, “He doesn’t have—” well when Sean didn’t have access to a phone, they said that, “He can’t get married, he doesn’t have access to a phone,” but Sean was like, “Well in America, you guys have the right to get married,” and they didn’t care, they didn’t care. They were just like, “Nope, not happening, his communications were shut off so he can’t get married.”
There was a whole — I would email the Chief of Corrections, which is David Robinson, and he just would not get back to me, and not get back to me, and not get back to me. “Like when can I marry my partner? This is a constitutional right,” and it was a headache, it was upsetting, it was tiring, but we finally got permission, which is super exciting, so now we are just waiting for international travel to start back up and we will be getting married, but it’s been a long road coming.
JO: Can you talk a little bit about, like I know Sean has parole coming up this summer, so ideally he’ll get that, but that’s up in the air, but part of that is he has to have a place to live and stuff and so you’re really uprooting your entire life for this. Can you explain that and what the plan is and what your hopes are?
LS: Before I met Sean, I felt that I had my life set in stone, but when I met Sean, I threw everything out the window and I was like hey! My plan is to move to Ohio in August because I will be attending Eastern Michigan, so our plan was to live right on the border of Ohio and Michigan so school wouldn’t be that far, but Sean would also be in the district of where he is to parole and then, I’m gonna secure hopefully an apartment and I’m going to move all of my stuff from Canada to Ohio in August and hopefully Sean gets paroled and I will see him in October!
JO: So that takes us to the final question, which is — I just want to give you as much space as you want to talk about how people can support Sean and with the parole or whatever it is, so just sort of — Sean said that you would be more equipped to speak to this than he is, just the floor is yours.
LS: Thank you. So currently myself and as well as the Swainiacs have an Instagram account going, you can find it @ Swainiacs1969 and there there is a link to a Google Form where you can put your name and address and simply fill it out and everything is written for you in order to support Sean’s clemency and ultimately, release, so we would really appreciate if folks would find the Instagram, fill it out, and we’re a collecting all of these forms and we are going to be sending them to the parole board, to show them that Sean does have support for getting out.
So yeah, also he likes letters, he likes writing to people, so write to him, because he likes writing.
Black Train begins playing again.
JO: This episode of the #PrisonsKill podcast not far from Lake Superior on occupied Anishinaabe[g] land. Music for this episode was created by my comrade Jacob Cohen. We’d like to leave you all with a recording of one of our favorite poems, A Small Needful Fact by Ross Gay.
Thanks so much for listening. I’m Joergen Ostensen. #PrisonsKill.
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.