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Lawmaker pushes for limits on solitary confinement

Bill named after former prisoner who spent decades in isolation

Capitol News Illinois
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SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois man who spent 20 years in solitary confinement after being convicted of a minor theft and, later, driving without a license is now helping lead a push for legislation to limit the use of isolation in state prisons.

Anthony Gay, who served 24 years in prison after being convicted as a young man, wept during a news conference in Chicago on Tuesday as he explained his experience.

“When the conditions of confinement were psychologically eating me inside out, instead of being removed from solitary confinement and offered adequate psychological counseling, I was prosecuted, given 100 years and buried deeper in solitary confinement for symptoms of mental illness that solitary confinement created,” he said.

With Gay at the news conference was Rep. La Shawn K. Ford, a Chicago Democrat and lead sponsor of House Bill 182. Ford said the bill will be known as the Anthony Gay Isolated Confinement Restriction Act. It would put strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes.

Among other things, it would limit such confinements to no more than 10 consecutive days, 10 days in a 180-day period and require that when inmates are out of their cells, they have access to activities, group therapy, medical treatment, meals, classes, job assignments, visits and exercise.

Ford, who introduced the bill just before the start of the 2019 legislative session, called the use of extended solitary confinement “devastating and unconstitutional.” But so far, the bill has not had a hearing in the House committee that deals with criminal judicial matters. Ford, however, said he hopes to get the bill through the House before the end of March and send it to the Senate.

“We have a strong, compelling argument with Mr. Gay, and I think we have a very liberal governor that believes in change like this,” Ford said.

Tuesday’s news conference was held in the law offices of Romanucci & Blandin, LLC, one of the firms that represents Gay in a civil rights lawsuit against the Illinois Department of Corrections and Wexford Health Services Inc., a company that contracts with the department to provide inmate health services.

Gay, who has filed previous unsuccessful suits over the same issues, alleges his treatment amounted to “torture,” in violation of his constitutional rights as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case is pending in the Central District of Illinois.

According to that lawsuit, Gay was first arrested as a teenager after getting into a fight with another teen who told police that Gay had stolen his hat and a $1 bill. He pleaded guilty to robbery and was placed on probation. He later violated his probation by driving a car without a license. In 1994, at age 20, he was sentenced to prison.

His lawyers argue in the complaint that with good behavior, he could have been out in three and a half years. However, they argue, Gay’s “borderline personality disorder” began to manifest itself. He started “acting out” in ways that extended his prison sentence.

In 1998, he was placed in solitary confinement and, according to the lawsuit, remained there for 20 years. During that time, the lawsuit alleges, he was kept isolated in a small cell for 23 hours a day and did not have access to mental health care. He engaged in several acts of self-mutilation, according to the filing.

In response to the lawsuit, IDOC and the other defendants denied they violated Gay’s constitutional rights and assert that Gay himself is responsible for the actions that led to his injuries.

A spokesperson for IDOC did not respond to a request for comment about the bill.

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