The Zapatista Party Candidate for Governor of Ohio and the Necessity of Prison and Sentencing Reform

Sean Swain is probably the most extreme left-wing candidate for public office you've never heard of. And no, he's not a Democrat. In fact, he might have more in common with opponents of big government, insofar as he advocates the destruction of all government, that is. Swain is running for governor of Ohio from his prison cell in Toledo as an anarchist write-in candidate under the banner of the Zapatista Party. This is not Swain's first campaign for governor either.

In 2006, the convicted murderer publicized his gubernatorial candidacy in a number of letters to local media. Over the course of the campaign season and the following months, the Cincinnati Enquirer's Politics Extra blog relayed at least three of the inmate's letters: one announced his campaign ("I have no major party backing me; I will be excluded from the televised debates; by statute, you will not find my name on the ballot, and I am relegated to a write-in campaign. I am operating on a $17 per month budget from my prison cell"); another reported his intent to obtain the endorsements of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez; and with a third letter, sent in the summer following the election, Swain declared himself "governor-in-exile" and stated that he had not yet conceded the race to Democrat Ted Strickland ("I have not conceded the election. In fact, I was sworn in as governor in a ceremony here in Toledo on the same day Ted Strickland moved all of his crap into my office"). In 2009, Swain was interviewed by Eli Braun of Waging Nonviolence for an article at Street Vibes detailing the horrors of solitary confinement. From the article at Street Vibes:
Since 1991, Swain, now 49, has been sent to solitary confinement “seven or eight times,” including a 144-day stint from May to October 2003. Most recently, he violated rules by “encourage(ing) prisoners to partake in a 30-day work stoppage,” according to the official conduct report.
This year, Swain's candidacy is listed alongside those of incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland, Republican John Kasich, Green Dennis Spisak and Libertarian Ken Matesz at D.C.'s Political Report, the Green Pages and Politics1.

Swain appears to have been maintaining a campaign site until at least a few weeks ago, when the page went down. But sections of it can still be accessed via Google's web cache. In the "Affidavit of Sean Swain" he explains the circumstances of his arrest and conviction for murder and aggravated murder in the early 1990's, for acts which he claims were in self-defense. On the site's main page, Swain outlines his political platform under the headline: "Treason We Can Believe In." Here are a few choice excerpts:
• "I’m not talking about rocking the boat—I’m talking about sinking the motherfucker."
• "Democracy isn’t shit, I know. You choose your own slavemaster. Not cool. But just imagine if you could turn your ballot into a bullet and blow the government’s brains out, once and for all."
• "I’m running for Governor of Ohio from prison in 2010 as a Zapatista Party candidate. I don’t want to be Ohio’s NEXT governor; I want to be Ohio’s LAST governor."
Among other things, Swain calls for the pardon and release of all prisoners, the recall of the national guard from "the Oil Wars," and abolishing all government and state agencies to create an "Autonomous Zone." He concludes: "THE BAD NEWS: It will be the end of civilization as we know it. THE GOOD NEWS: It was never worth a shit anyway."

Given the many problems that plague the American prison and criminal justice system, it is unfortunate, though perhaps symptomatic, that an individual like Swain has been driven to the advocacy of madness rather than that of prison reform. As is widely known, but rarely addressed, "With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second," as the Washington Post reported in 2008. A report from Human Rights Watch adds: "Even more troubling than the absolute number of persons in jail or prison is the extent to which those men and women are African-American. Although blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black."

Due to the inflexibility of sentencing guidelines and the country's extremely high rates of incarceration for even the pettiest offenses, among other things, many American prisons are also dangerously overcrowded. It is not difficult to comprehend that crowded prisons make for insecure and violent prisons. Numerous studies have found that well over 100,000 incarcerated men, women and children have been the victims of rape at the hands of other inmates as well as corrections officers. Characteristically, under the influence of the prison industry lobby, including both public and private sector organizations, political leadership in the Democratic and Republican parties are more likely to respond to this crisis with calls for more prisons rather than reasonable reforms. If we allow for the breakdown of civilization behind bars, it should be no surprise that those behind bars will call for the end of civilization on this side of them.

This article is a cross-posting, originally written for Uncovered Politics, where it was featured in the Oddball of the Week section.

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