How solitary confinement drove a young inmate to the brink of insanity
January 2, 2019 / by: Jeff Coen & Stacy St. Clair / Chicago Tribune News
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.
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