ROCK ISLAND -- His story, so troubling and despair-filled, brought many in the smallish church lounge to tears.

Even the man sharing the ever-so-troubling yarn of a life in solitary confinement was forced to leave and gather his thoughts.

Anthony Gay’s horrifying tale began in 1993 when — at age 19 and while on probation — he pleaded guilty to strong-armed robbery In Rock Island County.

He stole a hat and $1 and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

From there, life, for nearly a quarter-century, would take countless hideous turns for Gay, who suffers from mental illness.

His actions, fueled by his illness, led to numerous additional charges and convictions for incidents against prison guards (throwing feces and urine and yanking on his chains when being escorted).

Those charges — and subsequent convictions — resulted in an additional 99 years added to Gay’s original sentence of seven years.

And a life in isolation.

For nearly all of his 24 years in prison, Gay — released Aug. 27 from the Dixon Correctional Center’s mental health unit — was held in solitary confinement at a variety of Illinois institutions, including the Tamms supermax prison and Pontiac Correctional Center.

A federal judged based in East St. Louis would find that mentally ill prisoners held in solitary for over a decade at Tamms were cruelly treated.

Gay was one of those.

Fueled by illness during his time in isolation, Gay turned to self-mutilation. He would cut himself approximately 500 times, including castrating himself in 2010, while in solitary at Tamms.

Despite the deep darkness of his world behind bars, there was help on the outside. Attorney Scott Main of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University and Jennifer Soble of the Fair Punishment Project — after hearing about Gay and his life in isolation — stepped forward on his behalf.

The pair reviewed 17 documented assaults by Gay on guards at Pontiac located at Livingston County, and determined the consecutive sentences for those convictions to be improper. The local prosecutor agreed, and Gay’s sentence was reduced by 73 years.

“There was that thread of hope,’’ said Gay, who noted that despite the reduction in time, he still had 4½ years to serve, most of which would be in solitary. “I finally had something to look forward to.’’

Through the decades of darkness and despair, Gay says his mother remained at his side visiting her son when allowed and vowing to him that God would see him free.

“I had The Lord’s help through everything,’’ Gay said. “I was given a “Rope of Hope’’ by so many, including my mother, who for over two decades never gave up hope.’’

Gay also gave thanks and praise to Rock Island-based Church of Peace Pastor Mariah Marlin-Warfield, who became a prison pen pal, sending him cards and spiritual-filled letters. Gay singled-out Quad-Citian Annette Hutto, a kind and caring soul, who was also a prison pen pal for him and spent part of Sunday’s gathering emotionally assisting him through his presentation.

Pastor Mariah and Annette were there for me,’’ said Gay, who lives two blocks from the Church of Peace and worships there. “Lawyers on my behalf threw me that lifeline I needed. Despite what happened, I am grateful to many, especially God.’’

Gay said even his local newspaper was a saving grace while being confined 22 to 23 hours a day.

“The Quad City Dispatch,’’ Gay said of The Dispatch and the Rock Island Argus. “My father got me a subscription while I was in Pontiac so I would have something to read. And I read it. It’s how I found about Annette and Pastor Mariah and I reached out to them. And (John) Marx, hey man, I read him all the time. ‘’

Gay said Sunday he would love a career in the publishing field and is working on a book. It is titled: “Life on Impulse.’’ He is on parole and looking for work.

“The greatest agent for change is awareness,’’ Gay said after his presentation. “I believe sharing my story will help others and open some eyes.’’

Many of those eyes will be watery once the story is complete.

Columnist John Marx can be reached at 309-757-8388 or jmarx@qconline.com.

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