Anthony Gay was sentenced to an incredible 97 years in prison for throwing feces out his food slot, behavior experts characterize as symptomatic for severely mentally ill people held in solitary confinement. Yesterday the ACLU joined the National Disability Rights Network, Mental Health America and many others in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in Gay’s appeal, calling the sentence “an unconscionable and shocking criminalization of his mental illness.”
Anthony’s story is a tragic, but all too common, tale in our criminal justice system, where the severely mentally ill are routinely held in solitary confinement for months, years and even decades — their condition, and the punishment for it, worsening.
Anthony originally entered prison on a low-level charge after violating probation on a seven year suspended sentence. Had he been able to conform to prison rules, he should have served three-and-a-half years in prison. Unfortunately, Gay’s mental illness led to bizarre and disturbing behaviors. Rather than treating his mental illness, officials punished him repeatedly for his symptoms; his security level was raised and he was increasingly banished to solitary confinement. Eventually Gay was sent to Illinois’ “supermax” prison, Tamms Correctional Center, reserved supposedly for the “worst of the worst.” Subjected to 23 hours or more of isolation a day in a small cell with little to no human contact, Gay repeatedly tried to commit suicide and began to engage in horrific self-mutilation — slicing his arms, legs, penis and testicles with bits of metal or glass hundreds of times. Yet he was still not given meaningful psychiatric evaluation or treatment.
Instead, the Department of Corrections referred Gay repeatedly to local prosecutors so that he could be charged with additional crimes — throwing feces, urine and possibly juice through his food slot at corrections officers. In most of his trials, Anthony represented himself without the assistance of legal counsel.
Anthony is now serving what amounts to a life sentence for behavior that is a well-known result of subjecting severely mentally ill people to solitary confinement. The State of Illinois did not have to do this. It could have chosen a better way — as courts, departments of corrections and state legislatures around the country have recognized.
Are you one of the many people who have been affected by solitary confinement – either because you experienced it yourself or you know someone who did? If so, tell us your story and what it meant to you.