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Illinois man who spent 22 years in solitary confinement seeks reforms

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ROCK ISLAND — Three years after his release from prison, Anthony Gay continues to fight to end solitary confinement in Illinois.

The 48-year-old recounts the horrors of spending 20 consecutive years isolated in a prison cell no larger than a parking space. Starving for attention and human interaction, he began self-mutilating as his mental health deteriorated without proper treatment. 

"I used to ask myself when I was in this environment, how could America be so cruel to its own people?" said Gay, a Rock Island native, in a recent interview with The Pantagraph. "One thing I got in my head, I said, even at the expense of losing my life, I will fight and fight and fight until they stop torturing my people in solitary confinement."

Gay was sentenced to prison in 1994 after pleading guilty in a Rock Island robbery when he was 20 years old. In an interview with The Pantagraph Gay said that he had gotten into a street fight with another teen, who then told police that Gay stole his hat and a dollar bill. Gay was initially serving his time on probation, but was caught driving without a license and was sentenced to prison.

While serving out his seven-year sentence, Gay said during the interview that he began to manifest a mental illness that caused him to act erratically. Shortly after his prison sentence he landed himself in solitary confinement following a fight with another inmate. 

During his time in prison, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which he said the Illinois Department of Corrections was aware of. He was prescribed psychotropic drugs, which did not stop him from self-harming.

Gay said that rather than being treated for his mental illness, he was continuously punished for his actions by being placed in solitary confinement with little human interaction. He was typically not allowed outside his cell, even for meals, and was only sometimes let out for short periods to exercise.

"You've got to remember that this environment is psychologically darkening," Gay said. "Instead of them realizing that he's (Anthony) psychologically sinking, they would up the ante and try to figure out a way to stop me from being able to get to the outside hospital.

"At some point, they got tired of me flooding the cell, putting stuff in my ear, so they sent me to the supermax."

Federal lawsuit filed 

For the next 20 years Gay was transferred between prisons, going from one solitary confinement cell to the next. During his sentence he was placed at the Pontiac, Menard, Tamms, Dixon and Stateville prisons.

After his transfer to the Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum security prison for adult men, Gay accumulated an additional 97 years onto his sentence for multiple assaults on prison guards. 

Gay's sentence was eventually reduced in 2014 to 24 years, and he was released in August 2018.

As his mental state deteriorated, Gay began to cut and re-cut wounds on his body, sometimes inserting foreign objects or staples and often losing enough blood to lose consciousness. Two months before he was released from prison in 2018, he inserted a razor into his eye just leave solitary confinement.

"I'm thinking, 'How can I get people to care about me? How can I get people to talk to me? How can I get people to understand? So I started out scratching myself," Gay said. "Then, it started getting to the point where my body reacted to it and I started feeling better when I did it.

"I would do it to where it would become so horrific to the point where I've got blood gushing out of my neck like water out of a water fountain. It's sad because, it's like these people are now showing me care and compassion because they don't want me to kill myself."

In 2018, Gay filed a federal lawsuit against former Illinois Department of Corrections director John Baldwin and current IDOC director Rob Jeffreys; Wexford Health Sources, which provides medical and mental health care to IDOC inmates; and several wardens and assistant wardens at specific prisons where Gay was held.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois and alleges the defendants tortured Gay and violated his Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. It also states Gay's 14th Amendment rights were violated. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The Illinois Department of Corrections is undergoing changes to its solitary confinement policy, which it calls "restrictive housing," said Lindsey Hess, IDOC public information officer. Each inmate placed in solitary confinement is examined by a qualified mental health professional and receives "programming based on their mental health status and needs," she said. 

"The Department is committed to ensuring its policies and procedures support the wellbeing, rehabilitation and successful reentry of all individuals in custody," Hess said in an emailed statement to The Pantagraph.

The new policy, which began in October 2020, requires all people in custody to have time out of the jail cell and access to programs, services and recreation, Hess said. It is based on a set of best practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Correctional Association.

'The greatest agent for change is awareness'

An estimated 67,000 inmates across the U.S. are in a cell 22 days alone, a 2019 Yale University and the Association of State Correctional Administrators study has found. The state Department of Corrections also estimates about 900 or the 1,100 prisoners in solitary confinement have mental illness.  

Earlier this year, the Illinois House of Representatives passed the Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Reform Bill, which seeks to reform solitary confinement in Illinois. The bill is currently stalled in the state senate, said state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago. 

"We tried to pass this many times in the General Assembly, with many people giving testimony about the trauma that the confinement puts them through," Ford said in an interview with The Pantagraph. "It's my hope this year that we can continue to work with the Department of Corrections and the sponsor in the Senate to pass it on to the governor for his signature.

"It's really changing the way solitary confinement is in Illinois and making it a little more humane, making sure they have access to daily exercise, able to read and have certain amount of daylight."

If passed, the bill would limit an inmate to no more than 10 consecutive days in solitary confinement in a 180-day period. The bill also ensures inmates have access to to group therapy, medical appointments, meals, educational classes, job assignments, visits and exercise, the gymnasium or yard time when not in solitary.

IDOC would also be required to file quarterly reports on the use of solitary confinement.

"We have to remember, putting people in this state, they're the very same people coming back to our neighborhoods," said Ford. "If we don't treat them better and try to reform them, it's only hurting us. We have to make sure we reform our correctional institutions, and this is one of them. You can tell that Mr. Gay is traumatized."

Ford said he was moved after reading Gay's story, which is why he reached out to him as one of the sponsors of the bill.

"That was his only way to receive any touch from the outside, and that's sad," said Ford. "That tells you the system is inhumane. When you saw the cuts on his arm and listening to his testimony, it's clearly inhumane and unnecessary. There's no way Illinois should treat people that way."

Today, Gay has committed himself to raising awareness of the dangers of solitary confinement. Every day he is driven to call and share his story with others, creating new alliances in the fight to end solitary confinement.

During his Rock Island interview with The Pantagraph, Gay invited a few community activists he had met while he was reaching out to various groups and organizations to raise awareness and share his story. The activists said they were inspired by Gay's story and wanted to help raise awareness of the dangers behind solitary confinement.

Amirra Rose, an activist for inmates in Rock Island, said she had met Gay through his outreach. His story spurred her to assist in educational efforts to raise awareness of the harmful effects of solitary confinement.

“People always think or have the mindset, well, they got themselves in prison, this is what they deserve, this is what they get, this is their punishment," said Rose. "Many times, people make bad decisions, but at the same time it’s the people’s tax dollars that are covering the cost of these individuals being behind the wall, and that doesn’t necessarily give the state the right to use those tax dollars in the poor manner that they are.”

Latrice Lacey, director of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, and high school students at United Township in East Moline Kadija Sylla, Leslie Moreno and Omnia Salih, all 17, also joined. The students are part of a Youth in Government program and are drafting their own bill to abolish solitary confinement in Illinois.

"I think the thing that appealed to both me and Leslie is that solitary confinement is honestly inhumane," said Sylla. "It's just something that affects everyone in society, even if it's not directly affecting you. That's what appealed us to this bill."

The students, they said, were touched after hearing Gay's story and testimony and wanted to take matters into their own hands to raise awareness.

Gay continues to share his story to inspire others while advocating for inmates who are still incarcerated. He said he is not motivated to gain sympathy or gratification, but to help those who are facing the same psychological tortures he experienced while incarcerated.

"In order to beat this monster, in order to dismantle this monster, I have to be proactive in the extreme," said Gay. "I think the most therapeutic thing for me is fighting back. Sometimes I cry at night because I know there are still people in there that are being tortured and I'm out and they're not.

"The greatest agent for change is awareness. The more people we can make aware, the more people we can inspire to do something about it."

Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.

"I used to ask myself when I was in this environment, how could America be so cruel to its own people? One thing I got in my head, I said, even at the expense of losing my life, I will fight and fight and fight until they stop torturing my people in solitary confinement."

— Anthony Gay of Rock Island, a former prison inmate campaigning to end solitary confinement


"In order to beat this monster, in order to dismantle this monster, I have to be proactive in the extreme. I think the most therapeutic thing for me is fighting back. Sometimes I cry at night because I know there are still people in there that are being tortured and I'm out and they're not."

— Gay

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