As a teenager, Anthony Gay robbed a fellow teen of his hat and a dollar bill, which landed Gay in prison.
His prison odyssey spanned 24 years, during which he was locked in solitary confinement in Illinois prisons for 22 to 23 hours a day, cut and slashed parts of his own body more than 500 times in protest, was strapped naked to metal bed frames without food, and, on a grim day in 2010 during what court records state was extreme mental delirium, sliced off part of his testicle and tied it to a cell door.
Ten days ago, Gay, now 44, woke up in solitary in the prison’s mental unit. In the space of minutes, he was escorted out of his cell at the Dixon Correctional Center by a three-man “extraction team” to a dressing room, where he got out of his yellow jumpsuit and into civilian clothes. A short walk followed until he reached a final door. Then freedom.
“I felt alive again. I couldn’t believe it,” said Gay, who met his sister in the parking lot. “It’s good to be home.”
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
She had rented a small U-Haul trailer, and Gay loaded about a dozen large cardboard boxes jammed with thousands of court documents and letters that fueled his court battles for decades. They immediately left for the family home in Rock Island.
Gay’s unusual case was detailed in the BND’s 2009 award-winning investigative series “Trapped In Tamms.” That and numerous follow-up articles helped bring attention to the plight of Gay and others. A federal judge in East St. Louis would eventually find that mentally ill prisoners held in solitary for over a decade in the now closed Tamms supermax prison in the southern tip of Illinois were cruelly treated. Reforms were recommended but the prison, the most expensive per inmate to operate, soon closed.
Gay expected to die in prison because of a long series of felony assaults on guards that consisted of throwing body waste or yanking back on chains. These sentences were consecutive and added 99 years to Gay’s prison time. He was up for parole at age 120.
Reviewing the prison sentence
But attorneys Scott Main of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University in Chicago and Jennifer Soble of the Fair Punishment Project reviewed a series of 17 assaults on guards by Gay, mostly in Livingston County where he was then held at Pontiac Prison, and determined that the consecutive sentences were improper. The local prosecutor agreed, and Gay’s sentence was reduced by 73 years. He faced just 4 1/2 more years and finally knew he would be free.
But while he was out from prison, he wasn’t completely free. Gay must wear an electronic ankle bracelet for 90 days and can leave the home only to look for a job, which he has done several times.
After his first night at his mother’s house, attorney Main stopped by for a visit. Gay was sitting at the dining room table talking to family members on a cellphone that took him some time to figure out.
“My feelings in that moment were of disbelief and joy,” Main said when Gay answered the door. “Am I going to say what he did was right? No, I am not. But we put someone in segregation and when he manifests symptoms as a result of that and then we punish them for the symptoms, we can’t be terribly surprised by the outcome.”
As for whether Gay will stay out of prison, Main said: “I’m not in the prediction business. He has a strong support system from his family and his team at Northwestern. But in the end, it’s a matter of hope.”
Need for a support system
Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said, “Gay’s success in society depends on creating a support system and assessing resources to help in the transition.” Perez was held for three years in solitary on New York state on a robbery charge.
“They go from being all alone into families that have learned to get along without them,” Perez said. “Choices and responsibilities in small things such as food, clothing and transportation can seem overwhelming.”
Perez offered this advice to Gay to improve his assimilation:
“Connect with people who have been in the same situation as you. Use them as mentors and service providers because only they can know what we are going through. It gets better with time. Every day gets a bit easier,” Perez said.
Able to talk freely without guards listening in, Gay told a visitor he believes his basic inability to cope in the prison system started about 1994. He was diagnosed with relatively minor mental illness, including borderline personality disorder.
“I was acting out,” he said. “I didn’t know who my friends were. The environment was all about hate. It was a nightmare.”
‘The only way I could feel anything’
The Department of Corrections sent Gay to Tamms in 1998, and there he encountered the most extremely restricted environment in the entire prison system. He said his answer to solitary confinement was to fall in love. As unlikely as this sounds in a prison where inmates are basically denied human contact, Gay said he found a way. It was his therapist, a woman in her 30s who saw him on a weekly basis.
“The only way I could feel anything was to fall in love,” he said. ”I was in love with her.”
The love was unrequited. The therapist only provided therapy. The human contact and the communication helped him cope with the lonely hours in his cell spent in solitary confinement. That one relationship helped sustain him, he said.
But suddenly, Gay was returned to Pontiac, which has been listed in court documents as the second worst environment in the state prison system. He was sent directly to solitary. He said he didn’t know why he was transferred and desperately wanted to get back to Tamms to see his former therapist.
“I knew if I could get back to see her I would be all right,” he said.
But no transfer came.
So that’s when he began accumulating years and years on his sentence by assaulting guards and getting charged with more crimes.
“I never thought they’d charge me for throwing (feces),” he said.
The years-long battle to return to Tamms was won, but the therapist was gone by the time he returned.
At his mother’s home, Gay mows the grass and dreams of writing a book about his years in solitary. He has a title, “Life on Impulse,” and even a cover designed by a friend in the publishing business. His own letters from various state and federal court files show him as an articulate, often impassioned writer.
Daily chores make him feel “human,” he says.
Despite seeking a normalcy, there are outward indications of his time spent in solitary. His arms are roped with scars, making an odd road map of his time in prison.
Gay’s right arm is so scarred by cutting that it’s impossible to count the wounds. The inner thigh on one leg and his neck also contain this type of scarring. Psychiatrists say inmates who spend long periods of time in solitary sometimes cut themselves simply “to feel something” again.
Records from Tamms obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2009 by the BND showed that sometimes inmates were sutured without anesthetic. He said of the times he had cut on himself he was brought to a hospital maybe 50 times, although he said there were other mutilation incidents that should have resulted in a trip to the emergency room.
His introduction to “cutting,” a practice seen in society by inmates held for great lengths in solitary and adolescent girls, was sort of a breakthrough, even though it was painful and dangerous.
“It was psychologically chaotic,” he said of self-mutilation. ”You’re doing it to feel alive. I saw somebody else do it. It blew me back.”
One of the advantages of a trip to a hospital was the care, contact and communication given to him by the emergency room staff.
“I love nurses,” he said. “They are the greatest humans on earth.”