With his mental state deteriorating as he sat in the crushing isolation of solitary confinement, a desperate inmate named Anthony Gay saw a temporary way out.
Sometimes it came in the form of a contraband razor blade. Occasionally it was a staple from a legal document or a small shard of something he had broken.
He would mutilate himself in his Illinois prison cell, slicing open his neck, forearms, legs and genitals hundreds of times over two decades in solitary confinement. Once, he packed a fan motor inside a gaping leg wound; another time he cut open his scrotum and inserted a zipper.
Each time he harmed himself, he knew that, at least for a little while, the extreme step would bring contact with other human beings. Therapists would rush to calm him. Nurses would offer kind words as they took his pulse and stitched him up.
“It’s kind of like being locked in the basement, and then emerging from the basement and being put on the center stage,” he said. “It made me feel alive.”
Gay entered the Illinois Department of Corrections in 1994 as a young man, convicted of robbery after brawling with another teen who told police that Gay took his hat and stole a single dollar bill. He expected to serve as little as three and a half years.
Instead, a fight with a fellow inmate led to Gay’s first stint in segregation, pushing him into a downward spiral that resulted in 22 years in solitary confinement. Shortly after the segregation started, the cutting and suicide attempts began.
The Illinois Department of Corrections would later identify Gay in court filings as one of a few dozen inmates whose mental illnesses were so acute and dangerous that they required full in-patient care. His psychiatric treatment, however, often consisted of a therapist shouting questions to him through a door.
By keeping Gay in isolation, the state continued the increasingly discredited practice of segregating prisoners from others for long stretches. The American Correctional Association — the organization that provides expected practices for prisons across the country — issued new standards in 2016 that called for limits on restricted housing, including a provision that prisoners with mental illnesses should not be placed in solitary confinement for an extended period.
An IDOC spokeswoman declined to comment on Gay’s incarceration or the treatment he received. The agency also refused to release any records related to Gay’s confinement, saying it would be an invasion of his privacy. The Tribune established a timeline of his confinement by reviewing thousands of pages of court documents, medical records and testimony transcripts and conducting interviews with Gay, his relatives, his lawyers, prosecutors and prison experts. Taken in their totality, the paperwork and interviews paint a disturbing portrait of a man whose prolonged isolation caused him to mentally deteriorate to the point where he would do just about anything — including mutilate himself — for human contact.
Gay, now 44, recently filed suit in U.S. District Court claiming that his treatment amounted to torture and that he was denied proper mental health care.
His case comes amid a broader rethinking around the country of solitary confinement, and whether it amounts to excessive punishment.
At any given time, about 67,000 inmates nationwide are spending up to 22 hours a day alone in a cell, according to a joint study by Yale University and the Association of State Correctional Administrators.
A significant number of those have mental illnesses, though estimates vary. A federal judge recently found that of the roughly 1,100 Illinois prisoners in solitary confinement, more than 900 of them have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Another measure, provided last month by the Illinois Department of Corrections, found that nearly 1 in 3 prisoners in segregation have a mental illness categorized as serious.
The issue has prompted several states to reform their segregation policies in recent years, though Illinois lags behind. While Illinois has significantly reduced the number of days juvenile offenders spend in isolation and no longer uses segregation as a punishment for young people as part of a consent decree between the department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, those policies do not extend to the adult population. That, however, could change following a blistering report from a federal monitor charged with reviewing the treatment of mentally ill inmates in restrictive housing.
Released from prison in August, Gay said he hopes his lawsuit helps change the system, and in some ways he already has. A federal judge ordered the Illinois Department of Corrections in October to improve its mental health services — a groundbreaking ruling made after Gay testified about his troubling treatment in solitary.
With Gay’s intelligence and an extraordinary ability to articulate his mental deterioration in solitary confinement, his lawyers believe he could be a pivotal voice in the growing prison reform movement.
“I’m more focused on loving the guys that’s still left behind,” Gay told the Tribune, “and throwing a rope to pull them out of the ditch.”
A rough beginning
Gay’s early family life in his native Rock Island wasn’t always steady.
He was raised in a working class neighborhood by an aunt and uncle who adopted him, although his biological mother, who had endured struggles of her own, lived in the same Quad Cities town along the Mississippi River. He sat at the dining room table of his aunt’s home on a recent day, surrounded by family pictures, and recalled how as he was entering his teen years he made the fateful choice to leave.
His maternal aunt’s home meant stiff rules, homework and curfews, while his mother’s two-room apartment meant freedom to come and go as he pleased.
“If I had stayed here, I don’t think I would’ve gotten into trouble,” he said. “Went downhill when I left here.”
Gay said he had difficulties with discipline when he wasn’t wrestling for his school team, at one point being sent to a juvenile home.
He avoided a serious criminal record until age 18, when he fought another young man from a nearby block after Gay says the teen insulted his sister. Gay was accused of taking the other man’s hat and $1 after beating him.
Gay pleaded guilty to robbery in exchange for a sentence of probation, but that was soon revoked after he was caught driving without a license. Suddenly his life was taking a detour into the Illinois Department of Corrections, where he found himself sentenced to seven years in prison.
Still, with time off for good behavior, the sentence could have meant as little as three and a half years in medium-security facilities such as the Shawnee Correctional Center downstate, where he was sent in his earliest days. But shortly after arriving he had a fistfight with another inmate. Gay was transferred to the tougher Menard Correctional Center, as was the prisoner he fought with. The two soon brawled again, Gay said.
That second fight put Gay into solitary confinement for the first time. And it was in solitary confinement — in one Illinois prison or another — where Gay would remain for more than 8,000 days.
With panic setting in during those early weeks, he first sought attention by remembering something he had done when he was 12 years old back in Rock Island. He had taken a bunch of pills, prompting him to be rushed to the hospital.
“It garnered a lot of sympathy,” he said. “Everyone was so concerned about me. … It felt nice to have people care for me.”
Sitting alone in his cell, he recalled the childhood episode and the resulting attention fondly. So without much hesitation, he said he opened the pack of medication he had been given by prison medical staff, and swallowed all of it.
‘I was sinking’
Gay’s next transfer was to an Illinois facility synonymous with tough prison life — the sprawling Pontiac Correctional Center in Livingston County, where Gay said conditions in the prison were worse and he spent most of his time alone and struggling with his mental state. The situation grew so intolerable, he says, that he repeatedly attacked guards and disobeyed orders, extending his time in segregation over and over again.
“I don’t think I understood it,” he said of his steady deterioration. “I was sinking then but not really realizing it.”
He would become enraged by simple things, he said, like a guard giving him one piece of bread on his meal plate and not two. By repeatedly earning disciplinary tickets, Gay was slowly eating through all the good time built into his sentence, pushing his release date up to, and eventually beyond, his seven-year maximum.
By 1998, Gay’s conduct resulted in his transfer to what was then the newly opened Tamms Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility essentially designed to house the state’s worst offenders. For at least 23 hours a day, inmates sat in 7-by-12-foot cells. Meals were served through a “chuck hole” and contact with outside world was sharply restricted.
There were no jobs, no vocational training and, for Anthony Gay, no hope. In continued isolation, he gravitated further toward self-destruction.
“I remember tearing the light switch out, sticking a screw in my ear,” he said. “It felt good.”
But it took another inmate on his wing seriously injuring himself for Gay’s behavior to worsen. The inmate had somehow managed to cut himself, Gay learned, and the incident prompted an emergency response by the staff unlike anything he had ever seen. He watched through the dime-sized holes in his cell’s metal door as concerned prison employees rushed to the man’s aid.
“Nurses come at the speed of light. Mental health and security,” he recalled. “They come running, and … it hit me. These people really love this dude, they really care. I wanted that kind of attention.”
In a twisted plan to receive some of that same comfort and human interaction, Gay tried to mimic his fellow inmate. He threatened suicide with a noose that another inmate had made him and left in the shower area. He was bounced out of Tamms to other facilities and then back, all the while hurting himself more and more extremely.
At one point he removed part of one of his testicles and hung it on his cell door, according to court records, as a kind of demented message to his captors. He only left Tamms a second time in late 2012 because the notorious facility shut its doors for good.
“Kind of like a drug addict — you have to up the ante,” Gay said. “I learned to tolerate the physical pain. So the physical pain would alleviate the psychological pain.”
Therapists diagnosed Gay with antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder, describing him as manipulative and anxious in their notes. He believed himself to be in love with his Tamms psychologist.
The Department of Corrections responded by putting him on medication and providing occasional therapy. He continued to mutilate himself, but corrections officials typically dismissed it as a manipulative gesture.
While there’s no doubt Gay was trying to manipulate the corrections staff to elicit their concern, the extreme self-harm was also — and simultaneously — a symptom of a major psychiatric disorder, his attorneys say.
“The Illinois Department of Corrections was well aware that solitary confinement was driving Anthony insane, but throughout nearly his entire incarceration they did almost nothing to ameliorate it,” said attorney Antonio Romanucci, who is representing Gay in his federal lawsuit.
Indeed, a federal monitor blasted the state Department of Corrections in a report released in 2018, decrying the conditions for mentally ill inmates. The 105-page review details how segregated inmates languish in “filthy, loud” cells that are inappropriate for housing the seriously mentally ill. By not addressing the isolated prisoners’ needs, the department is causing problems for both itself and the inmates, according to Dr. Pablo Stewart’s report.
“The placement of seriously mentally ill offenders in segregation exacerbates their pre-existing mental illness as well as causing the development of new forms of psychiatric pathology,” Stewart wrote. “It is imperative that the department fully embraces the reality that it is the largest provider of mental health care in the state of Illinois. As such, outdated correctional notions about the use of segregation need to be completely rethought.”
Gay garnered the attention of prison reform advocates as far back as his earliest time at Tamms, as lawyers monitored the conditions there and expressed concern about years of isolation for inmates in court filings.
And he caught the notice of downstate prosecutors, who also wanted to make a statement about prison culture.
In Livingston County, where Pontiac Correctional Center is situated, the state’s attorney’s office lodged a series of 21 indictments against Gay between 2000 and 2004 for the many times he threw his own excrement at guards. In what some call “picket fencing,” the cases were often stacked separately as the statute of limitations for each charge was about to expire, so the convictions led to consecutive sentences.
The charges were intended to send a clear message to both the public and the nearly 3,000 inmates housed at Pontiac: In a county where the prison employs hundred of residents, prosecutors would seek tough punishments against anyone caught abusing staff members.
Gay stood trial on many of the counts, typically acting as his own attorney. Ultimately, his 10-month stay in Pontiac resulted in another 97 years tacked on to his sentence.
A judge handling one of the cases noted the unusual nature of the Gay prosecution in a memo to another judge in May 2004.
“The sad thing about this case is that at the age of 19, Mr. Gay committed a minor theft in Rock Island County and was sentenced. … Because of all of the incidents at Pontiac Correctional Center, he probably will never be released,” wrote Judge Charles Frank, according to court records. “I would think a $2 piece of plastic draping would have prevented all of these. Apparently, no one out there understands that.”
Desperate for help and now looking at a lifetime of solitary confinement, Gay began writing lawyers and begging for assistance. Among those willing to take up his cause was Scott Main of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University. Main and a colleague challenged how the sentence was structured and were eventually able to get Gay out of prison.
Main had gone to the Livingston state’s attorney at the time, Seth Uphoff, when he took over the office in 2012 and asked him to review his predecessor’s actions. The sentences should have been “presumptively concurrent,” Main argued, because Gay had been in custody the whole time and not on bond, as spelled out in state statutes.
Uphoff eventually looked at the law himself and agreed with Main’s argument. The prosecutor didn’t condone what Gay had done, but he also did not want Gay and his lawyers to wage a protracted legal battle when he could quickly rectify the sentencing error.
“My main job was to do justice,” Uphoff told the Tribune.
Uphoff and Main entered a joint motion to have Gay resentenced, a move that significantly shortened Gay’s punishment. Uphoff lost his re-election bid in 2016 after his opponent received the endorsement of the union representing Pontiac corrections officers.
With real hope of freedom for the first time in decades, Gay stopped harming himself as much in his final months of incarceration. Not coincidentally, he was transferred to Dixon Correctional Center, where he was allowed to interact with other inmates, taken off his medication and received intensive daily therapy. He was released this past August.
Just days later, Gay told his complete story in court for the first time, testifying in a class-action lawsuit filed more than 10 years ago by another inmate named Ashoor Rasho, a case that has led to the federal monitoring of the state Department of Corrections.
Lawyers have called Gay’s poise and ability to articulate his experiences remarkable, considering his history. After Gay’s testimony in the Rasho case, the federal judge issued a new order finding the state was “deliberately indifferent” to mentally ill inmates’ needs and requiring state prison officials to address “constitutional deficiencies” in its treatment of those prisoners. He cited Gay in his ruling.
“Part of the reason prisons are as far away as they are is because we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to look at it, we don’t want to know about it,” Main said as he reflected on Gay’s case.
The state has been ordered to pay $3.8 million for the inmates’ legal fees in the decade-old case, an amount finalized by federal Judge Michael Mihm in late December.
Gay files suit
In addition to the Rasho case, another downstate suit from 2016 filed by inmate Henry Davis is seeking class-action status and a requirement that the state apply new standards that limit the use of extreme isolation in state prisons.
And Gay in October filed his own lawsuit against the state of Illinois and its prisons officials in U.S. District Court in Chicago, forming a third prong in the series of legal challenges buffeting IDOC.
“It was plain for anyone to see that solitary confinement was ravaging Anthony’s mind, and that he was in desperate need of appropriate mental health care,” Gay’s lawsuit reads. “But instead of placing Anthony in a setting that would alleviate the impact on his mind, or providing him treatment to get better, the defendants responded by prolonging Anthony’s extreme isolation, depriving him of access to human contact, programming, mental health care, and activities — for decades.”
Alan Mills of the Uptown People’s Law Center is an attorney on both the Rasho and Davis cases, and he said those suits together with Gay’s case could provide the momentum needed to bring real reform to Illinois. Mills said Gay’s suit is notable because he is seeking damages for what happened to him as an individual.
“What Anthony shows is why the other two are important,” Mills said. “It shows the depth of damage that can be done to a person if we don’t fix this system. There will be more Anthony Gays coming down the pike.”
Recent proposals to limit solitary confinement for adult inmates in Illinois died without even making it out of the General Assembly. More than 30 states — including Texas, California, North Dakota and New York — have taken steps toward reducing the number of inmates held in segregated cells for punitive reasons. And Colorado, once notorious for holding inmates in solitary confinement, now has a policy that bans solitary confinement for longer than 15 days and requires most inmates must be out of their cells for at least four hours a day.
Both the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the American Corrections Association have championed reforms, acknowledging that such practices do not serve the best interests of inmates or staff. A 2016 joint study by the administrators association and Yale Law School concluded that segregation should be used when “absolutely necessary and for only as long as absolutely required.”
“I think there is momentum (for reform). When states both large and small start making these changes, it’s hard for other states to ignore it,” said Leann Bertsch, the ASCA immediate past president and director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “Administrative segregation places substantial stress on both the staff working in those settings as well as the prisoners housed in those units. Our highest priority is to operate institutions that are safe for staff and inmates and to keep communities to which prisoners will return safe.”
A new life
Anthony Gay no longer treads anxiously or lives in isolation.
He has a home now, with friends and family. He has a half-dozen lawyers, all of whom are concerned about how he adjusts amid his newfound freedom.
“For the past year and a half I’ve been worried to death about what’s going to happen when Anthony comes out, because what the hell?, what has the state done to this person and then said, ‘All right, go forth?’ ” Main asked. “So there has to be some acknowledgement and some awareness and some reckoning to address what we, the state of Illinois, 200 years old, are in the process of doing and have done and will continue to do unless there are conversations like this.”
After his release, Gay moved in with his aging aunt and uncle, who see him as their son. His aunt often looks at him for long stretches without saying a word, just shaking her head and smiling as if she can’t believe he has come home.
At his adoptive parents’ dining room table, Gay offers guests root beer and shows them where he’d been painting their kitchen. He cannot sit still for long stretches, often finding excuses — Come look at this picture of fourth-grade me in the front room! Do you want to see the handiwork I’ve done in the basement? — to stand up and walk around.
There were no baths in prison, so he prefers them to showers, he said. Over the holidays, Gay picked out many of the favorite recipes he had missed for so long, first and foremost his aunt’s caramel cake.
He has marveled at the advancement of technology, and has learned to text. Though his uncle bought him a subscription to the local newspaper while he was still in prison, there’s still a lot he has to catch up on.
He does get therapy, and he shrugs when a lawyer sitting with him talked about how he might be the one to shed light on a dark part of the Illinois prison system and help others who now find themselves where he was.
There are deep scars, both physical and emotional, but Gay insists he doesn’t hate anyone he believes did him wrong. He won’t let himself be eaten up by anger thinking about those who ignored him except when they were pushing food through a slit in a steel door.
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,” he said, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr. “Only love can drive out hate.”
He might write a long piece about his experiences, he said, and if not, he would like to get into publishing somehow.
But for now Gay marvels at the small things, like mowing a lawn, having new shoes, and taking out the garbage. Even a stroll to a small coffee shop in his old hometown is something to be savored.
“The other day, I walked down to the corner, and I just stopped and was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” he said.