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.
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.
Released from prison in August, Gay said he hopes his lawsuit helps change the system, and in some ways he already has. A federal judge ordered the Illinois Department of Corrections in October to improve its mental health services — a groundbreaking ruling made after Gay testified about his troubling treatment in solitary.
With Gay’s intelligence and an extraordinary ability to articulate his mental deterioration in solitary confinement, his lawyers believe he could be a pivotal voice in the growing prison reform movement.
“I’m more focused on loving the guys that’s still left behind,” Gay told the Tribune, “and throwing a rope to pull them out of the ditch.”
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