Man who spent 22 years in solitary urges Illinois to curb ‘psychological torture’

Anthony Gay, who calls solitary confinement ‘wrong, despicable and horrible’, hopes bill passed by lower house will become law

An inmate who spent 22 years in solitary confinement in an Illinois prison after being arrested for stealing a hat and a dollar bill is campaigning for legislation to end a practice that he says drove him to self-mutilation and a suicide attempt.

Anthony Gay said he was “tortured for decades” by his isolation for up to 24 hours a day in a cold, tiny cell he likened to a dungeon, and was denied access to necessary mental health care.

His efforts since his 2018 release to outlaw the procedure as a punitive measure is reflected in a bill that bears his name now making its way through the Illinois legislature.

“I know what it’s like to be tortured and I know that many people are still being tortured,” he said in an interview with ABC News.

“And I feel guilty because I got out and they didn’t. But if we can inform more people, and more people become aware that strength is in numbers, [we can] compel them to do something about it. It’s wrong, despicable and horrible, and it needs to stop.”

Prison reform advocates say solitary isolation can have a devastating impact on inmates’ mental health.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), 80,000 inmates are held in some form of isolation across the US on any given day, and more than 10,000 are released to society from solitary confinement every year with an increased risk of anxiety, depression or suicide.

“Prisons and jails are already inherently harmful, and placing people in solitary confinement adds an extra burden of stress that has been shown to cause permanent changes to people’s brains and personalities,” a PPI research associate, Tiana Herring, wrote in a 2020 discussion of the practice.

“The effects of solitary confinement on mental health can be lethal. Even though people in solitary confinement comprise only 6% to 8% of the total prison population, they account for approximately half of those who die by suicide.”

Gay was first arrested for robbery in 1994 for his involvement in a street fight, in which he stole a hat and $1 from another participant. A subsequent probation violation put him back in jail, and a violent altercation with another inmate landed him in solitary confinement.

From there, Gay said, things snowballed. He was resentenced to seven years for the original robbery charge and reacted badly to the solitary confinement, resulting in more time alone.

“I would cut on myself, I would act out, throw urine, liquids,” he said. “They would extend my time and things of that sort instead of allowing me to see mental health [professionals] and taking it as a health concern.”

That, he said, led to the “psychological torture” of 24-hour solo incarceration, with occasional breaks of no more than one hour.

“It’s dark and it’s cold as a dungeon, psychologically anyway,” he said. “The light is dim in the room, it just seemed like the walls are caving in.”

The Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act would limit such extreme confinement for any individual to no more than 10 consecutive days in any 180-day period, and compel the Illinois department of corrections to produce quarterly reports showing the use of the practice. Additionally it would guarantee a prisoner’s access to exercise, recreation and therapy while not in their cells.

The bill passed the Illinois house of representatives last month and is currently before state senators.

“This measure will bring greater transparency to the Illinois department of corrections and a greater level of humanity to the system,” said La Shawn Ford, a Democratic state congressman who introduced the bill.

In correspondence to the Guardian, the Illinois corrections department took issue with the words “solitary” and “isolated” confinement. “IDOC does not have solitary confinement. We have restrictive housing,” spokesperson Lindsey Hess said in an email that attached a staff memo detailing the “new” policy, which became effective in October 2020.

According to the document: “Restrictive Housing (RH), previously referred to as segregation, typically consists of placing an offender in a cell for up to 23 hours a day.

“There will no longer be long-term segregation and indeterminate segregation. Success is not just about reducing numbers. To make impactful change and sustainable progress, a systems approach must be adopted,” the document added, explaining that previously each of the department’s 27 correctional facilities operated its own confinement policies.

According to department figures, the total inmate population in Illinois has declined steadily since its 2013 peak of 49,401, and dropped below 30,000 last year for the first time since 1991. Six inmate suicides were recorded in 2020, but the reasons were not indicated.


Richard Luscombe

The GuardianTramp

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