Supporters of Tamms inmate: Solitary should not be dumping ground for mentally ill

News-DemocratOctober 23, 2011 

Tamms Correctional Center

AP

Anthony Gay, an inmate included in a 2009 Belleville News-Democrat series on the effects of long-term solitary confinement, is the focus of a legal appeal challenging the state's practice of holding mentally ill inmates in isolation at Illinois' Tamms supermax prison.

The lawsuit, thought to be the first in the state to confront placing prisoners in continuous solitary, some for as long as 13 years, is before the 4th District Appellate Court in Springfield.

The legal argument cites federal court decisions in other states that prohibit mentally ill or suicidal prisoners from being placed in solitary confinement, and also offers numerous medical findings that state that isolation aggravates mental illness.

Alan Mills, attorney for the Uptown People's Law Center in Chicago, said he hopes the appeal will "stop solitary confinement from serving as a dumping ground for the prison system's mentally ill."

Gay, 37, was convicted in 1994 of punching another youth and stealing his hat and a dollar bill. Gay has been held in solitary confinement for seven years. Convictions for throwing feces at guards -- acts that his supporters say are typical of mental illness heightened by solitary confinement -- have extended his overall prison term to almost 100 years. During his seven years in solitary, he has mutilated himself hundreds of times with bits of metal and glass, behavior associated with mental illness, experts say.

"This should not be tolerated in any humane society," Mills said. "A ruling in Mr. Gay's favor ... would send a strong message to corrections officials statewide that mentally ill prisoners should be treated for their mental illness, not punished for their symptoms. ... Mr. Gay is serving a life sentence because he is mentally ill."

On Tuesday, "friend of the court" briefs from a dozen nonprofit organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Equip for Equality and the Legal Aid Society of the City of New York, were filed with the appellate court supporting the effort to free Gay.

Sharyn Elman, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, said, "While I cannot comment on pending litigation, we are taking steps to move forward on the Tamms reforms" that were proposed in September 2009 after the BND series "Trapped in Tamms" ran in August of that year. These changes include allowing inmates to make telephone calls to family members and attend religious services.

"We hope to have some changes in place in the next few weeks," she said.

But Laurie Jo Reynolds, head of the Tamms Year Ten Committee, said meaningful reform is long overdue.

"By the department's own rules, as stated in the 10 Point Plan ... they screen men from being transferred to Tamms who have engaged in bizarre self-mutilation," she said. "Yet they are forcing Anthony Gay and others who severely self-mutilate to stay in Tamms because they are already there."

The original lawsuit, filed in August, seeks reversal of a string of felony convictions against Gay for acts that occurred within a 10-month period when he was held in isolation at the Pontiac Correctional Center. Court records show that Gay was convicted of throwing feces and urine at guards through a food service "chuck hole." If these convictions were reversed, he could be immediately freed, the lawsuit states.

Convictions for assaulting guards, which by state law must be consecutive, extended Gay's original seven year sentence for violating probation on his theft conviction to Jan. 27, 2095, when he would be 120.

The "friend of the court" briefs state that sentencing a mentally ill inmate originally convicted of a minor crime to what amounts to a life sentence is, "An unconscionable and shocking criminalization of mental illness."

In August, the BND published a story that included reporting that Gay cut off a testicle and tied it to the sliding door of his isolation cell. Critics of the solitary confinement policy have said segregation from human contact leads to extreme mental illness that in turn often leads to horrific and repeated acts of self mutilation.

IDOC officials, including the physician who treated Gay, have stated that by mutilating himself, Gay is trying to manipulate the system, although it is unclear what he could hope to gain by these acts.

"When a person lacks reason, extreme forms of punishment like disciplinary segregation will only make him or her worse, which is what happened in Anthony Gay's case," said John Maki, executive director of the John Howard Association in Chicago, a group concerned about the conditions of prisons. The association filed a friend of the court brief in the Gay appeal.

Not all the legal arguments have been filed in the case. The Livingston County State's Attorney, where the Pontiac prison is located, has until Dec. 2 to file answering arguments. Then oral argument can be scheduled.

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

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