January 17, 2019
The practice of solitary confinement, where prisoners are kept in cells alone, with little or no human interaction, sometimes used as punishment, sometimes used to keep the prisoner or others safe, has been the subject of increased scrutiny. The question that has never been definitely answered is: “How long is too long?”
We may be getting an answer to that question in the form of a lawsuit being brought by a mentally ill Illinois man who spent over 20 years in solitary confinement.
Anthony Gay, who suffers from borderline personality disorder, was originally incarcerated for stealing a hat and a $1 bill. That crime violated his probation, and although Gay could have been released in three and a half years with “good time” credits, repeated infractions pushed back his release date. Prosecutors obtained 21 indictments against Gay between 2000 and 2004 for throwing feces at guards and, not surprisingly, the lack of human interaction in solitary worsened his mental state, according to his lawsuit. In fact, as a last resort against loneliness, Gay turned to self-harm: He would mutilate himself in his cell, slicing open his neck, forearms, legs and genitals hundreds of times over two decades in solitary confinement. Once, he packed a fan motor inside a gaping leg wound; another time he cut open his scrotum and inserted a zipper.
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.” All told, Gay spent 22 years in solitary confinement.
About 67,000 inmates nationwide are spending up to 22 hours a day in solitary at any given time, and in Illinois, nearly 1 in 3 prisoners in solitary has a serious mental illness. Gay’s lawsuit suit alleges violations of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the due process clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
For a sense of what it is like to be in solitary confinement, this 2014 op-ed piece in the New York Times by Rick Raemisch, who was the Chief Corrections Officer for the State of Colorado, and who voluntarily spent a mere 20 hours in solitary, is enlightening.