(NEW YORK) — After spending 22 years in solitary confinement, Anthony Gay is trying to make sure no other prisoner in Illinois has to experience the same level of trauma that he went through.
Gay is the face of the state’s Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Act, a bill developed over the last 10 years that would limit solitary confinement to no more than 10 days per six-month period. It’s one of several bills currently moving through state legislatures across the country that aim to reform solitary confinement in prisons and reduce the severe mental health toll on prisoners.
“The worst part is being trapped in a cell 24/7, not being able to receive social contact and human contact,” said Gay, who was released from prison in 2018 after representing himself in over 80 appeals before he was able to retain the help of a lawyer.
Gay’s path to solitary confinement began when he was 20 years old. He’d been involved in a street fight and, as a result, was charged with aggravated battery and robbery for stealing a hat and a dollar bill.
“They were like, ‘If you plead guilty to the robbery, they’ll dismiss the aggravated battery.’ So, I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to face 15 years [in prison] for a street fight,"” he said. “So, I plead guilty to the robbery and get four years probation.”
Gay, of Rock Island, Illinois, said he was arrested during his probation for driving without a license. His probation was revoked and he was re-sentenced to seven years in prison.
“I had no idea that I was about to be tortured for decades,” he said.
While serving time, Gay was involved in another fight, which landed him in solitary confinement.
“It’s dark and it’s cold as a dungeon — psychologically, anyway,” he said. “The light is dim in the room, and [the room is] very small, and it just seemed like the walls are caving in.”
Gay said he was in the cell for 24 hours a day and that occasionally he’d be let out for an hour.
“But when I got out,” he added, “it was much different because I didn’t have to do the extreme in order to have social stimulation in human contact.”
There are an estimated 80,000 Americans in solitary confinement on any given day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Gay said the experience nearly broke him.
“I would cut on myself. … I would act out [and] throw urine, liquids, [at] all officers. 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. They took punitive measures,” he said.
Gay said he doesn’t think people understand the importance of human contact. Some people, he said, “don’t care and other people are just not aware.”
Stephanie Gangemi, Ph.D., a forensic social worker, said solitary confinement is a “devastating and brutal” way to lock people up, and that it can sometimes perpetuate a cycle of heightened anxiety that can cause inmates to act up, leading to extensions in their stay.
“It breaks down the ability for people to do emotional regulation — to read appropriate social cues,” Gangemi said.
The Chicago nonprofit Uptown People’s Law Center first introduced Illinois state Rep. Lashawn Ford to the solitary confinement reform bill that now bears Anthony Gay’s name. His name was attached to the bill after Ford heard about his story. The bill was passed in the state’s House last month and is now being considered by the state Senate.
“When we learned about Anthony Gay’s situation and how it impacted him mentally, and what he had to do to get out of solitary confinement, it was devastating,” said Ford. “He immediately touched my heart.”
He went on to say, “What we’re learning is if there’s going to be some form of solitary confinement, it’s our job to make sure that you don’t keep people locked away for over 20 years in a solitary state. That’s harmful, it’s traumatic and it only harms society as a whole because those people come back and they become our neighbors.”
Even now, Gay said there are times when he cries at night. He said more people need to be made aware of what he called the “psychological torture” of solitary confinement.
“I know what it’s like to be … tortured and I know that many people are still being tortured, and I feel guilty because I got out and they didn’t,” he said. “But I believe that if we can inform more people and more people become aware that strength is in numbers. … This is domestic terrorism. This is psychological torture. This is a crime against humanity, and [we can] compel them to do something about it. It’s wrong … despicable and it’s horrible and it needs to stop.”
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