Story at a glance
- In 1994, Anthony Gay was arrested in relation to a street fight and robbery during which he stole a hat and a dollar.
- Since his release in 2018, Gay has advocated against solitary confinement after spending 22 years enduring it.
- The Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act for solitary confinement reform is making its way through the Illinois legislature.
After spending 22 years in solitary confinement for an arrest over a stolen hat and dollar bill, Anthony Gay is advocating for legislation to end the psychologically traumatic practice.
Gay said he was “tortured for decades” at an Illinois prison where he was held in isolation for close to 24 hours a day in a small cell and denied mental health care, leading him to self-harm and attempt suicide.
Since being released in 2018, Gay has shared his experiences, advocating for reform and is now campaigning for a bill in his name going through the Illinois legislature to prohibit the practice.
“I know what it’s like to be tortured and I know that many people are still being tortured,” Gay told ABC News. “And I feel guilty because I got out and they didn’t. But if we can inform more people, and more people become aware that strength is in numbers, [we can] compel them to do something about it. It’s wrong...despicable and horrible, and it needs to stop.”
In 1994, Gay was arrested in relation to a street fight and robbery during which he stole a hat and a dollar. After violating probation, Gay was returned to prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement after a fight with another inmate.
Gay said his mental health declined as his circumstances escalated, being resentenced to seven years for the robbery and adversely reacting to the trauma of solitary, leading him to act out in a cry for help.
“I would cut on myself, I would act out, throw urine, liquids,” Gay said. “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.”
Prison reform advocates say solitary isolation can have a devastating effect on inmates’ mental health.
In the United States, 80,000 inmates are being held in isolation every day, and every year, 10,000 are released from solitary back into the world suffering from higher risks of anxiety, depression and suicide, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI).
“Prisons and jails are already inherently harmful, and placing people in solitary confinement adds an extra burden of stress that has been shown to cause permanent changes to people’s brains and personalities,” Tiana Herring, a PPI research associate wrote. “The effects of solitary confinement on mental health can be lethal. Even though people in solitary confinement comprise only 6% to 8% of the total prison population, they account for approximately half of those who die by suicide.”
The proposed legislation, the Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, aims to limit the isolation of a person to not exceed 10 consecutive days in a 180-day period, give inmates access to counseling and exercise, as well as require the Illinois Department of Corrections to provide quarterly reports about its use of confinement.
Gay’s bill passed in the Illinois House last month and is now being considered by state senators.
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