Charged for stealing hat and $1, Anthony Gay released after 22 years of solitary confinement


Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Anthony Gay walks down his street Nov. 11, 2018 in Rock Island. He spent in 22 years in solitary confinement.

By Kallie Cox, Staff Reporter

Anthony Gay went to prison for 24 years and spent 22 of those years in solitary confinement. He was released from prison on Aug. 27. He is now 44 years old.

Gay was originally sentenced for robbery when he was 20 years old, during a street fight in which he stole a hat and a dollar bill from another man he was fighting.

After pleading guilty to robbery, Gay was placed on probation. During this period of probation, he purchased a vehicle and was pulled over.


Gay did not have a driver’s license and was sent to prison for seven years for violating his probation.

Gay said his mental health declined after being sent to prison.

“I rapidly deteriorated,” Gay said. “I instantly deteriorated, and started experiencing symptoms of mental illness and instead of removing me from the environment, or providing adequate mental health treatment, they punished me for it.”

After his mental health deteriorated, Gay was sent to the Tamms Illinois supermax prison, about 37 miles from Carbondale.

The prison was shut down January 2013.

“I ended up going to segregation. And I just couldn’t tolerate it,” Gay said. “It brought out the worst in me. It was like I was stuck in a ditch and instead of offering me a rope to pull me out the ditch, they just buried me more in the ditch.”

Gay said after being placed in solitary confinement, he started cutting himself.


Gay said he was isolated in a wing with another man who was an extreme self-mutilator. Whenever this man self-harmed, a team of nurses and guards would extract him from his cell.

“I felt like I was left out because I was in isolation and I didn’t see that kind of attention,” Gay said. “So it indicated to me that this is how you can get people to respond because I was locked in the cell 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

At first, Gay said he would scratch himself. The guards would brush him off and not take him seriously.

“Then I started, for lack of better terms, getting better and better at it,” Gay said. “It got to the point where they didn’t want to help me. They wanted to punish me, so they started doing things like putting me on an unappetizing diet called Meal Loaf.”

Gay said if the guards saw blood on the floor they would restrict his diet to Meal Loaf which he describes as ground-up ingredients that look like feces and taste like dog food.

“Instead of seeing the big picture, that it was the psychological torture zone, they just tried to up the ante,” Gay said. “Like beating me up, jumping on me, taking all my clothing and all my property, putting me on that unappetizing Meal Loaf.”

Gay said the guards’ objective was to punish him for self-harming.

“I was so desperate, I couldn’t stop. It got to the point where I could tolerate the physical pain, to try to alleviate the psychological pain,” Gay said.

At one point Gay had cut himself and blood got on the floor, he said. He tried to clean it up because if they saw the blood they would put him back on a diet of Meal Loaf.

“A lieutenant was in my cell, looking around my cell. He saw one speck of blood,” Gay said.

After this, Gay said he cut off his testicle to go to the hospital, so he would not have to eat the Meal Loaf.

“[Meal Loaf] was so disgusting. It was hard, it made me weak like some kind of bad medicine,” Gay said.

Gay said while he was in solitary confinement, becoming infatuated with his psychologist helped to alleviate his psychological pain.

“[While] I was in the Tamms there was a psychologist,” Gay said. “All of me was full of hate and the only way I could offset it, was to love somebody so I became infatuated with her.”

After becoming infatuated with his psychologist, Gay was transferred from the Tamms to the Dixon Psychiatric Unit. At this point, Gay said his out date was 2005.

Gay said Dixon was a more therapeutic environment.

“I did everything I was supposed to in Dixon Psychiatric Unit. And then for some reason, somebody decided to transfer me back to Pontiac, which was the place that sent me to Tamms in the first place,” Gay said. “They pulled me out of the ward and it was just like everything re-emerged.”

Gay said he thought if he could get back to Tamms to be around his psychologist, she could help alleviate the psychological pain.

“It was like I was delusional,” Gay said.

In an effort to return to the Tamms supermax facility to see his psychologist, Gay acted out and threw human waste at the guards in Pontiac Correctional Center.

“I would throw liquids at officers in an attempt to get back to the Tamms,” Gay said. “Not knowing that they were about to try to take the rest of my life away.”

According to Belleville News-Democrat, 99 years were added to his sentence after these actions.

Once he returned to the Tamms, Gay said he was isolated even more. This time, however, there were two nurses to whom he would write letters. Gay said instead of self-mutilation, writing became his refuge.

“They used to read my letters and encourage me to write,” Gay said.

With their encouragement, Gay said he went on to write several books and a screenplay while in prison.

Gay said now that he is out, the thing that helps him heal is advocating for those he left behind.

“Even though I have been released and I am at home,” Gay said. “I know so many guys that were prosecuted for their mental illness that might never see society again unless somebody throws them a rope to pull them out of that ditch. So, I am trying to contact lawyers, to file […] for a lot of those guys still trapped.”

Gay said he believes solitary confinement should be illegal in the United States, and guards should be better trained in how to deal with mental health issues in prison.

“They should become more compassionate because they are aggressive and mean, for example in prison, if you feel like harming yourself or harming others, you can ask to speak to a crisis team that will put you in mental health [ward] for the most part,” Gay said.

He said instead of the guards calling a mental health department, they will often refuse to call anyone.

In response to inquiry about Gay’s treatment the Department of Corrections said they remain focused on ensuring mentally ill men and women receive the necessary treatment.

The Department of Corrections said they are implementing new programs to improve outcomes for mentally ill inmate rehabilitation.

These steps include: staff training, adding the position of correctional treatment officer, reducing segregation time, adding programs for mentally ill inmates, and creating treatment centers.

Gay said in order to put a face to the issue of solitary confinement, he is writing a book called “Life on Impulse: The Physical Effects of Solitary Confinement in America.” Gay said he hopes to publish this book by January.

Gay said by advocating he hopes to achieve two things: to spread awareness, and for the people in society to reach inside solitary confinement and offer those guys hope, because it can mean a lot to them.

“I am hoping that people in America will reach out and correspond with those guys,” Gay said. “Because even though it was as psychologically dark as the inside of a cow in there, there were people who wrote me.”

One of these people was the Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield, who wrote to Gay for his last three years in prison.

Marlin-Warfield said Gay first wrote her in 2013 when he recognized the name of her church, the Church of Peace, in a newspaper.

Marlin-Warfield said in his first letter, Gay wrote, “I want to become a true story of hope and inspiration. They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I think associating with Christian-faith people is a significant step.”

Marlin-Warfield said she is deeply concerned for those whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system.

One problem with our prison system is that it removes individuals from their families and communities and essentially hides them in warehouses,” Marlin-Warfield said. “Now if you or I don’t happen to know someone who is locked up, it is entirely possible for us to go through our days and forget about those who are incarcerated.”

Marlin-Warfield said the church has an obligation to reach out to those who are at risk of being forgotten.

“I believe that we need to end this practice, especially the practice of subjecting individuals with mental illness to solitary confinement,” Marlin-Warfield said. “Human beings are designed for relationship. We all need other people. Cutting someone off from interaction is dehumanizing, dangerous and cruel.”

Marlin-Warfield said Gay would be speaking at Church of Peace on Oct. 28 to introduce a pen pal ministry with those who are incarcerated.

Scott Main, now an attorney with Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern, began working on Gay’s case in 2010.

Main said it took many years for Gay’s sentence to be reduced.

The appellate courts rejected most of my appeals,” Main said. “We ultimately were able to work with Livingston County prosecutors to come to an agreed resentencing structure in his case.”

Main said he cannot begin to imagine the long-term effects of solitary confinement.

“I cannot say that some of the things that Anthony did while locked up were okay,” Main said. “I also do not think the way Anthony was treated was okay. I am heartbroken to see examples where we criminalize manifestations of mental illness.”

Main said he is grateful the county prosecutor’s office ultimately joined them in correcting Gay’s sentence, and he is very happy that Gay is home.

“I can’t tell you the rational response to being locked up for a relatively minor offense and then ultimately sent to a supermax prison,” Main said. “I could not believe that Anthony had wound up with a sentence that exceeded any person’s lifetime.”

Gay’s original release date was 2095, with his solitary confinement release date being 2152. His confinement release date surpassed his release date even after he was granted a sentence reduction.

Staff reporter Kallie Cox can be reached at or on Twitter at @KallieC45439038.

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