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Ill. inmate might be released 73 years earlier than expected

Sentence has been drastically reduced after a defense lawyer discovered an error in how a state sentencing law was applied

By George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer
Belleville News-Democrat

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Anthony Gay tried to cut his way out of solitary confinement when he was at the now closed Tamms Correctional Center, where he then faced what amounted to a life sentence — 97 years.

The cutting was on himself. As a “cutter,” or inmate who hopes to get a transfer by mutilating his own body, often because of mental illness heightened by isolation, Gay was stitched up dozens of times. After medical treatment, he was sometimes held for hours spread-eagled on a metal bed frame.

In 2010, using a bit of contraband metal, he severed a testicle and tied it to his cell door, according to a physician’s report.

But his remaining sentence, 90-plus years of which were added through consecutive terms for throwing urine and feces on guards, has been drastically reduced after a defense lawyer discovered an error in how a state sentencing law was applied.

Instead of a release date of about 2091, Gay, who was featured in the Belleville News-Democrat’s 2009 “Trapped in Tamms” investigative series, is scheduled for parole in August 2018, a week after his 44th birthday. By then he will have served 24 years for a strong arm robbery when he was a 19-year-old in Rock Island that netted a hat and a dollar bill.

Attorney Scott Main, of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University, reviewed a series of 17 assaults on guards by Gay during a 10-month period in 2000 and 2001. Main, who could not be reached for comment, filed a motion in Livingston County Circuit Court contending that these assaults could result in a consecutive sentence only in relation to Gay’s original robbery conviction or to a subsequent 1998 prison assault conviction, and not end to end or consecutive to each other as previously calculated.

Livingston County State’s Attorney Seth Uphoff concurred with the motion granted Jan. 31.

“After multiple reviews of the cases, statutes and legal precedents, it became clear that (Gay’s) sentences had not been structured according to law,” Uphoff said.

“However, should he reoffend before his release, he will certainly be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and I can guarantee that sentence will be consecutive.”

IDOC head spokesman Tom Shaer, said that the legal situation involving Gay does not apply to any other Illinois state prison inmates.

“The repeated staff assaults of Anthony Gay were reprehensible acts which should be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. To do less would be to disrespect every correctional officer and staff member of IDOC,” Shaer said.

Gay’s situation drew national attention from advocates for the mentally ill who contend that he should be in treatment and not prison. He served seven years of continuous solitary at Tamms.

“He is the classic example of how we treat mentally ill people in prison in this society,” said Alan Mills, lead attorney for the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago.

“He should not even be in prison. This was a case involving stealing a dollar bill.”

Mills, who represented Gay on other prisoner rights cases, said that the Illinois Department of Corrections has long regarded mentally ill inmates primarily as “security problems” with inadequate concern for mental health treatment. But Mills said that is changing.

“They (IDOC) have been working on this, but they have a long way to go,” he said.

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the guard’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said his organization supports mental health treatment for inmates.

“Given cuts to public mental health treatment on the state and local levels, and the increasing numbers of individuals with mental illnesses in the justice system as a result, this investment is even more urgently needed,” Lindall said in a written statement.

According to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Stacey Solano, 22 percent or about 10,600 prisoners in the 48,300-inmate prison have “some sort of mental health need.” Another nearly 10 percent or 4,600 inmates are classified as “seriously mentally ill.”

“The governor’s (fiscal year) 2015 budget proposal for IDOC includes enhanced funding specifically for mental health services. This funding will help IDOC continue to increase mental health staffing ratios as well as enhance programming and treatment options,” Solano said.

Gay was among 179 inmates transferred from Tamms to the Pontiac Correctional Center. Shaer, the IDOC spokesman, said privacy laws prevented him from commenting about a particular prisoner, but added that any inmate in need of mental health services at Pontiac will receive them.

Lindall said that Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision, based largely on budgetary concerns, to close Tamms and other prisons and several inmate facilities has raised safety concerns for guards and staff. The union long argued that Tamms was needed to house incorrigible and dangerous inmates who could not be kept safely elsewhere.

“Whether last year’s closures of Dwight (women’s prison), Tamms and other correctional facilities made the system more dangerous is beyond question,” Lindall said.

In a statement, he wrote: “Crowding more inmates into less space without adequate staff to rehabilitate them effectively or incarcerate them safely raises risk for staff, inmates and the public alike. Lack of space has led to double-celling most maximum security-security inmates as well as those in administrative detention, who pose the gravest safety threat.”

While Tamms was by far the most expensive prison per inmate to operate, Lindall said it was also the least crowded and “the best staff-to-inmate ratio and had most intensive mental-health treatment program.”

However, Shaer said the transfer of the bulk of Tamms inmates to Pontiac and a few more to the Menard Correctional Center did not result in "... jeopardized safety and security” at either prison.

“The Tamms as ‘safety valve’ belief is not supported by any facts. ... Some people pushing agendas have falsely claimed Tamms transferees jeopardized safety and security at Menard, but that is utter nonsense because only seven (inmates) went from Tamms to Menard.”

As for Pontiac, where former Tamms prisoners make up about 12 percent of the 1,500-inmate maximum security section, Shaer said there is no factual support for believing that these former supermax prisoners pose an increased threat beyond what guards regularly face.

From March 2013 to March 2014, the number of inmates involved in infractions of the rules, fights with other inmates and several assaults on staff totaled 94, of which 22 involved former Tamms inmates.

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