Constitutional Law

Ex-inmate's suit claims 20 years of solitary confinement amounted to torture

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A mentally ill Illinois man sent to prison for violating probation after stealing a hat and a $1 bill has filed a lawsuit claiming the 20 consecutive years he served in solitary confinement amounted to torture.

The lawsuit filed in October on behalf of Anthony Gay comes amid increased focus on the effects of solitary confinement, the Chicago Tribune reports. The article cites a study that found, at any given time, about 67,000 inmates nationwide are spending up to 22 hours a day in solitary.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor is among those questioning whether solitary confinement can constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Keeping prisoners in near total isolation for extended periods “comes perilously close to a penal tomb,” she said in a statement regarding the denial of cert in a Colorado case in October.

The ABA House of Delegates called for curbs on solitary confinement in February 2018, including a complete ban on solitary confinement for those with intellectual disability or serious mental illness

In Illinois, nearly 1 in 3 prisoners in solitary has a serious mental illness, according to the state corrections department.

Gay has borderline personality disorder, a condition that worsened without sustained human interaction, his lawsuit says. Gay began to engage in self-mutilation that continued throughout his time in solitary.

According to the suit, he cut into his scrotum and embedded a zipper. He cut off a testicle and hung it on his cell door. He mutilated his penis and embedded a pen, plastics and a zipper. He stabbed himself with a spoon in his thigh so deeply that it had to be surgically removed.

Gay could have been released in three and a half years with good time credits. His repeated infractions pushed back his release date, the Tribune reports. Prosecutors then obtained 21 indictments against Gay between 2000 and 2004 for throwing excrement at guards.

Gay was released from prison in August after obtaining help from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University. His lawyers had argued the 97 years in accumulated sentences he received should have been served concurrently. The Livingston County state’s attorney agreed, and they jointly asked a court to resentence Gay.

Gay could have been transferred to an inpatient psychiatric hospital to get the help he needed, Gay’s suit says. For prison officials, however, “it was simply more convenient to deal with a difficult inmate by keeping him locked away in an isolation cell,” the suit says.

The suit alleges violations of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the due process clause, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

After Gay’s release from prison, he testified about his experiences in an Eighth Amendment class action filed by another inmate, Ashoor Rasho. A federal judge issued a permanent injunction in October requiring the state of Illinois to address constitutional deficiencies in its treatment of mentally ill prisoners.

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