Inmate wants out of Tamms; attorney says years of solitary confinement have harmed his mental health

News-DemocratAugust 28, 2011 

Tamms Correctional Center inmate Anthony Gay won't be eligible for parole until he is 120, unless his lawyer's interpretation of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling leads to an earlier chance at release.

Gay, 36, was sent to prison in 1994 on a seven-year sentence for assault, but he's now serving 99 years at Tamms, Illinois' only state-operated supermax prison. His prison term was increased because of mandatory consecutive sentences for throwing urine and feces at guards.

Gay has appealed to an Illinois appellate court in what may be the first attempt to apply a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting life sentences without parole for people 18 and younger.

In a Florida case, the Supreme Court justices ruled that youths were not mature enough to fully understand the penalty of their crimes, and deserved some chance at someday getting out. The ruling does not apply to homicide convictions.

Gay's mental state is deteriorating because of his seven-year stint in isolation at the solitary-only Tamms lockup, according to experts on the effects of isolation. Last year, he cut off a part of his genitalia, which a physician identified as "possibly a testicle" and hung it from a string tied to his cell door. He was treated and then sent to a "strip cell" as punishment.

Assistant Appellate Defender Scott Main has argued that years of isolation at Tamms have diminished his client's mental state to the point he shouldn't be held criminally responsible for throwing body wastes, acts he claims were induced by mental illness. To eliminate "hope" of release by making Gay serve a 99-year sentence is like the Florida ruling because it violates the "cruel and unusual" punishment prohibitions of the Eighth Amendment, Main has argued.

Gay, of Rockford, was incuded in the Belleville News-Democrat's "Trapped in Tamms" series published in 2009, which focused on mentally ill inmates held in continuous solitary confinement. While the prison's population was made up of more than 50 percent convicted murderers, many of the approximately 240 inmates were sent to Tamms for rules violations, despite entering the prison system for relatively minor crimes. Many inmates currently at Tamms have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade and some for as long as 13 years.

Gay initially received probation for punching a youth and stealing his hat and a dollar. But at 20, he wound up in state prison for violating probation. If he hadn't violated prison rules, he would have been released in 1998 after 3 1/2 years.

After spending two years in solitary during his first stint at Tamms shortly after it opened in 1998, Gay became a "cutter," or an inmate who responds to the stress of isolation by mutilating himself. This has happened hundreds of times with Gay, who has occasionally required hospitalization.

His self-mutilation, usually with bits of metal or glass, reached a new level on Aug. 28, 2010, during an episode that spawned still another lawsuit. In this case, filed in federal court where he represented himself, Gay won a partial victory earlier this year.

After his lawsuit was denied at the district level he appealed to the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. He claimed damages caused by alleged deliberate indifference by prison physician Dr. Marvin Powers, who waited two days to treat Gay after he cut himself. Nearly a year later, the court ordered Powers to evaluate Gay to make sure his life was not in imminent danger from the results of the self-mutilation.

What Powers saw at 8 a.m. on that day in August when he arrived to treat Gay, he later described in cool, clinical terms.

Gay stood next to a piece of his own genitalia he had cut off and fastened to a thin string or thread.

"He was standing at the cell door with some scrotal part of him, possibly a testicle, tied to the sliding door," Powers wrote in his report.

After Gay refused to be treated, he was subdued and Powers closed a wound in his scrotum with stitches. It is unclear from medical reports filed in federal court in East St. Louis whether the body part was a testicle and whether it was returned to his body. In his federal lawsuit, Gay stated it was his left testicle.

Inmates who cut off body parts should not be held in solitary, said psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers, an expert on the effects of long term solitary confinement.

Kupers, of the Wright Institute, a psychology graduate school in Berkeley, Calif., said that under conditions imposed by federal court decrees in California, "Mr. Gay would be permanently excluded from supermax confinement...someone who is so disturbed that he continually cuts himself, and so bizarre and extreme in his emotional disturbance that he cuts his testicles, is clearly extremely self-harming and functionally impaired, a grave and imminent danger to himself, and should never be consigned to supermax isolation."

But medical and mental health staff members at Tamms have long labeled Gay a manipulator who cuts himself to get what he wants, according to federal court documents.

In the state appeal case, Main stated that the added years on his client's original seven-year sentence accrued during 10 months in 2000 and 2001 when he was held at the Pontiac Correctional Center. He was charged by the Livingston County state's attorney with 21 counts of aggravated battery for throwing feces and urine at guards.

One of the judges, who handled some of the cases, wrote a letter to another county judge stating that a "$2 piece of plastic" could have stopped a number of these prosecutions from being filed. He referred to the prosecutions as a "waste of taxpayers' money."

In an opposing argument in the appellate court case filed on behalf of the county prosecutor by the office of the State's Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, Gay's attacks on guards at Pontiac were described as a scheme to force a transfer back to Tamms because he was infatuated with a female psychologist.

That written argument stated that Gay threw body wastes at officers "in order to force a transfer back to the prison (Tamms) to be with the female psychologist with whom he was in love."

The initial outcome of the state appeal process, if Gay wins, would call for the appellate justices to order an evidentiary hearing where witnesses and evidence could be heard concerning whether he is mentally ill because of solitary confinement. A ruling of whether he could be held responsible for the in-prison crimes would follow.

Laurie Jo Reynolds of Chicago, founder of the Tamms Year Ten Campaign that opposes solitary confinement, said Gay's situation is "emblematic" of a failure by the Illinois Department of Corrections to connect mental illness to long term isolation, even though a federal court ruling by a judge in East St. Louis last year made that connection.

"This example is emblematic," she said, "A man cuts off his testicle and instead of admitting he needs help, they punish him for malingering... I'm so appalled. If we built a dungeon, it would be a reform."

Dr. Janis Petzel, a Maine psychiatrist who helped lead an unsuccessful effort last year to convince that state's legislature to prohibit prisoners from being held in isolation longer than 45 days, said, "It gets to be a vicious circle -- the longer a prisoner is held in solitary, the more abnormal their behavior becomes, and the longer they are forced to stay in solitary."

Petzel, the former president of the Maine Association of Psychiatric Physicians, said that while she could not offer a clinical diagnosis of Gay without first examining him, inmates in his situation often find it difficult to obey the rules.

"Prisons are full of people with a history of child abuse, head injuries or mental illnesses, all of which impact their body's stress response system and impulse control ... and make it very difficult for them to toe the line with the very particular rules inside prisons, and also make them targets for violence from guards and other inmates," she said

Gay spends much of his time in solitary writing, including writing complaints for lawsuits and composing essays.

Court documents state that Gay is "mentally ill" although his diagnosis is not considered serious by prison medical staff. However, despite his proclivity for self-mutilation and hours where he is strapped by his arms and legs to a metal bed-frame for violating supermax rules, Gay's letters to friends and supporters are often articulate and introspective.

In a recent installment in a series of letters that begin with, "Dear America," Gay wrote: "It is like this place (Tamms) is designed to psychologically kill you. How could America be so cruel to its own people? ... Is there a need to psychologically kill prisoners? Are we terrorists? Am I a terrorist?"

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.

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