Anthony Gay went to prison in Illinois in 1994 for stealing a dollar bill and a hat. Behavior problems added to his sentence, and by the time he was released in August, he had served 24 years in prison — 22 of which were spent in solitary confinement inside a cell "smaller than the size of a parking space," according to Gay.
"On many occasions, I would be isolated on a wing by myself in a cold, freezing cell, strapped down in six-point restraints," he says. "I would be punished for cutting on myself and [be] given an unappetizing diet called meal loaf that looked like feces and tastes like dog food."
"I wanted to know that I was human. I wanted to feel alive. And that's the only means I [could] do it."Anthony Gay
Gay is now suing the state. As he and his lawyers allege, that period of isolation pushed him to the edge of insanity.
"I was trapped in a cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Gay tells Here & Now’s Peter O'Dowd. "Time descended like the lid of a coffin."
Beginning with his transfer to Tamms Correctional Center — a maximum security prison — cutting himself became a way to endure confinement. At first, he did "superficial cuts," but the prison staff didn't take him seriously, Gay says. So he went on to seriously mutilate himself with staples, rocks he found in his cell and ink pens.
He even considered suicide at one point and cut his neck.
"I wanted to know that I was human. I wanted to feel alive. And that's the only means I [could] do it," Gay says. "It made me feel alive, because the [nurses were] very caring, compassionate. They would clean the blood off me, encourage me not to do it."
All of this happened over the course of more than two decades. As he was moved from prison to prison, he got into fights and attacked and threw waste at guards. He could have gotten out of prison in three and a half years, Gay's lawyer, Alexis G. Chardon, says. But repeated disciplinary infractions extended his sentence and landed him constant trips to solitary confinement. "And from there, he rapidly began to decompensate," she says.
"Solitary confinement is known to ravage people's minds,” Chardon says. "Anthony's story illustrates how prison can be a real trap for [the] mentally ill."
While in confinement, Gay says he received "cell-front" treatment, where a psychiatrist spoke to him outside his cell about once a week. "At the end of the day, whatever treatment that they did give me was never sufficient," he says.
Because of his misbehavior, Gay was referred to the Illinois state prosecutor, who brought 22 successive criminal cases against him — not recognizing his constant trips to solitary and lack of mental health treatment, according to Chardon. Eventually, though, a state appellate defender discovered Gay's case, wrote briefs on his behalf and got the attention of prosecutors, who were willing to renegotiate his sentence.
"At the end of the day, it wasn't a judge who had the power to overturn those convictions," says Chardon. "It was state prosecutors who recognized the injustice of what had happened and were willing to negotiate with Anthony's criminal defense attorneys to reduce his sentence."
"I'm trying not to focus on my scars, but focus on those that [are] left behind and try to throw them a lifeline to help pull them out the ditch."Anthony Gay
Gay's treatment isn't uncommon, according Chardon, and some states have taken steps to address the issue of prisoners' mental health care. In Colorado, officials have banned the use of solitary confinement for periods longer than 15 days, and in other states, confinement of mentally ill prisoners has been banned altogether.
"Since they’ve done that, they've had a decrease in assault and other problems," says Chardon. "And of course, it's a lot less expensive."
Now that he's been released back into society, Gay says he is behaving "like a human would under human conditions, under civilized conditions." He is going to therapy regularly and discussing his history — and how to move forward.
"I think Ghandi said it best when he said, 'The only way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.' So I'm trying not to focus on my scars, but focus on those that [are] left behind and try to throw them a lifeline to help pull them out the ditch," Gay says.
The best part about the day he was released, according to Gay: being able to see his niece, who thought he still had a life-sentence left to serve.
"When they came to pick me up, I was actually able to give her a hug and tell her, 'Don't believe everything [you] hear,' " he says. "I am here, and it's awesome to be free."
This segment aired on January 11, 2019.