NISKAYUNA — Tom Swyers understands the punishment of William “Billy” Blake must continue.
Blake is in state prison serving a sentence of 77 1/2 years to life for fatally shooting Onondaga County Sheriff’s Deputy David Clark, 33, inside the town of DeWitt’s municipal building on Feb. 10, 1987. Blake shot and injured another deputy in the incident, which happened when he wrestled away a gun from one of the officers.
The shooter was manacled to two other prisoners at the time; all three were being escorted from court appearances.
Blake, now 56, has spent most of his prison time in solitary confinement. Niskayuna resident Swyers is sharing his belief that Blake should be allowed to leave his solitary space — about the size of half a bathroom — and be permitted to join other inmates in general population.
Swyers’ recent fiction book, “Caged to Kill,” includes a central character who has just been released from prison from solitary confinement. It’s an obvious nod to Clark’s real-life case. The author also has collected more than 1,200 signatures on a petition that he hopes eventually will sway state officials into releasing Blake from solitary.
Swyers, a longtime Niskayuna resident who is also an attorney and a former New York state judge, first heard about Blake when he received a letter from Comstock Correctional Facility in April 2017.
“I don’t practice criminal law so I had no idea what it was,” Swyers said in a recent interview. “I looked on the back and there was a return address to William Blake plus his — at that time I didn’t know it — but it was his prisoner ID.”
Blake, then in solitary for more than 30 years, had written 20 attorneys. The inmate, currently incarcerated at Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy (between Rome and Utica), was hoping one would take an interest in his case.
“I didn’t think I could help him legally, I knew that was a huge uphill battle,” Swyers said. “As a solo practitioner, that wasn’t something I was able to help him with. I thought I could help in another way, maybe as a writer to use his story as an inspiration to address some of the social issues that arose from his particular situation.”
Swyers already had enjoyed some success as a writer, in his David Thompson — the main character is a lawyer — legal thriller series. The first book, “Saving Babe Ruth,” received two Benjamin Franklin Book Awards in 2015. The second effort, “The Killdeer Connection,” won the 2017 international writing competition sponsored by Amazon. All three Swyers books are set in the Capital Region.
Swyers and Blake began corresponding. During the past three years, Swyers has filled a large binder with 400 pages of Blake letters and poems.
“His letters are sometimes optimistic, sometimes upset at his situation,” Swyers said.
The more Swyers exchanged letters with Blake, and researched his situation, the lawyer and author concluded Blake does not belong in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. He is allowed one hour for exercise.
The letters, plus some in-person visits with Blake, helped Swyers write what would become 2019’s “Caged to Kill.” At the heart of the story is a man set free after decades of solitary confinement in a New York prison.
“In a way, writing this book, I had to put myself in solitary confinement because a good part of the book was written from the point of view of somebody in solitary,” Swyers said. “I definitely got the experience from that — being in solitary, you lose track of what day it is and night and day sort of coalesce, depending upon your specific situation. You could have a window, but you could be pretty confused as to what’s going on.”
Swyers believes people do not understand how life in solitary can change people.
“The problem is when we put people in solitary confinement, we hold them to the same standards as someone like you and I who are just walking in the street,” Swyers said. “If you act up a little bit and you get disciplined, you get a ticket. By keeping the standards the same for behavior, you can encounter some disciplinary tickets along the way and he has, there’s no question about that. But there have been long periods of time where he has not had a disciplinary ticket and I’m absolutely amazed at that.”
Swyers knows Blake’s crime was a grave one, and he will never leave prison. Swyers said Blake understands that — he is not campaigning for release. Blake doesn’t become eligible for parole until 2064.
“All he wants is to get out (of solitary and live in general population, that’s his main goal,” Swyers said. “For [the state] not to give him an opportunity, that’s really outrageous.”
Swyers said Blake regrets his actions of 33 years ago.
“He’s definitely remorseful about the whole situation, but he realizes what he did was what he did,” Swyers said. “It was wrong and he understands why he’s here.”
During four visits and long conversations with Blake, Swyers said, he has come to know Blake as a person. He said his friend reads and writes during his time in solitary.
Blake also has been published. According to news articles, Blake expressed thoughts about the killing and prison in an essay that appeared in a book titled “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement.” The book is a collection of works about solitary confinement put together by Solitary Watch, an organization aimed at raising awareness about solitary confinement.
“I think he’s changed, and I think he deserves the opportunity to live in the general population,” Swyers said. “That’s all I’m advocating for on his behalf.”
In “Caged to Kill,” Swyers’ fictional character Phillip Dawkins has recently been released from prison and solitary, cleared of his wrongful conviction for murdering a police officer. Among his only friends are his lawyer, David Thompson, and Thompson’s wife and son.
Government harassment follows, Dawkins’ bad dreams and forgotten memories resurface and soon …. Dawkins is hearing a voice in his head that says “Murder.”
As in other Swyers books, the Capital Region plays a supporting role.
“People will recognize a lot of the landmarks,” Swyers said. “I describe Route 5 in detail. I love that road, a straight shot between Schenectady and Albany and all that it has.” Swyers also finds places for the Karner Blue Butterfly and Albany Pine bush.
In the real world, there has been no passed legislation that addresses solitary confinement in prison.
“I really believe it’s because not enough people know what’s going on on the outside with respect to solitary confinement in the state,” Swyers said. “Everyone I talk to, family, friends, when I tell them there’s a man who’s been in solitary confinement for 33 years in New York State, they cannot believe it. Once they do find out, once they think about it, they think it’s outrageous. This is a topic that transcends your political ideology. If you’re on the left or the right, in the middle, independent, you will come to understand that there’s something wrong here.”
Blake may have some hope. Swyers said he received a Blake letter during the summer, and learned the prisoner is now in a “step down” program that will last several months. “He states that for the first time in 33 years, he has an approximate date for his release from solitary in 2021,” Swyers said.
Peter R. Kehoe, executive director of the Albany-based New York State Sheriff’s Association, said prisoners are not sentenced to solitary confinement.
“People get sent to solitary confinement for limited periods as punishment for breaking the rules of conduct when they are in the general prison population,” Kehoe said in an email note. “There is not a lot else correction officials can do to an imprisoned person who refuses to be ‘corrected.’ The time spent in solitary confinement depends upon the seriousness of the prison offense, but is measured in days or months, not years.
“If it is true Mr. Blake has spent most of his prison time in solitary confinement, then it must also be true that whenever he is out of solitary confinement he conducts himself in a way that requires punishment,” Kehoe also said. “Believe me, corrections officials do not, even if they legally could, put prisoners in solitary confinement for the fun of it. It is much more difficult, and costly, to manage a prisoner in solitary confinement than in the general population.”
Kehoe also mentioned the deputy killed in 1987.
“I would suggest that, before becoming too teary-eyed about Mr. Blake spending a lot of time in a smallish, solitary cell,” he said, “Attorney Swyers and his followers might want to recall that Deputy Sheriff David Clark, Mr. Blake’s victim, is spending forever in an 7-foot by 2-foot wooden box. And Deputy Clark’s wife and two children have never had a really good day since Mr. Blake’s cold-blooded murder of their husband and father 33 years ago.”
“Caged to Kill” is available through online retailers and at Schenectady’s Open Door book store.
Contact Jeff Wilkin at [email protected]