Anthony Gay was sentenced to seven years of prison on a parole violation, but ended up with 97 years added to his sentence. Gay lived with serious mental illness, and after time in solitary, he began to act out. He was repeatedly charged with battery — often for throwing liquids, like urine, at staff.
Gay acknowledges he did some of those things, but says the prison put him in circumstances that made his mental illness worse, then, punished him for the way he acted.
With help from Chicago based lawyers, Gay appealed to the local state’s attorney. What happens when a self-described “law and order” Republican has to decide between prison town politics, and doing what he believes the law requires?
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About the host
Shannon Heffernan is the host and a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ in Chicago. She has spent much of her career reporting on prisons. The work for this podcast began nearly four years ago when she got a call that an inmate at a prison had died under suspicious circumstances.
Motive is a production of WBEZ Chicago. Jesse Dukes (@CuriousDukes) is the producer. Marie Mendoza (@marieannmendoza) is our associate producer. Joe DeCeault mixed this episode. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our editor is Rob Wildeboer. Our executive producer is Kevin Dawson. Tracy Brown is our Chief Content Officer. We had additional production and reporting help from Arno Pedram and Candace Mittel Kahn. Original music by Cue Shop.
A quick warning before we start — this episode includes graphic descriptions of self-harm.
(OUTDOOR AMBIENT SOUND)
SETH UPHOFF: Most anybody who grew up in Livingston county has some connection to the prison. You can hear, there’s a big horn that sounds at the prison. You can hear that even out in the country.
UPHOFF: Depending on which way the wind’s blowing and how clear of a day it is, you can hear things from even out where I lived, and so the prison was a very large looming figure in Livingston County.
UPHOFF: There was a lot of kids I grew up with their parents or friends were prison guards. One of my very good friends. His dad was a prison guard, and so growing up and going over to his house, you know, he’d see his dad come home from work he would tell stories about what goes on in there. And as somebody who was growing up in a small farming community, you’d hear about some of these guys and it would, you know, make your eyes widen and it weirdly gave you a little sense of pride, wow we’re dealing with some big things in this little area.
SHANNON HEFFERNAN, HOST: Seth Uphoff felt proud to be from Livingston County — home of Pontiac Correctional Center, and while a lot of kids grow up dreaming of being famous athletes or musicians. Uphoff had a different idea.
UPHOFF: I’m a little odd in that at about the age of 12, I figured out that I wanted to be a prosecutor. And I know this sounds maybe a little cheesy, but really, when I think back on it, I think a lot of it started with Law and Order.
(LAW AND ORDER THEME)
HEFFERNAN: Law and Order, as in the TV show, salacious court cases, ripped from the headlines. Uphoff grew up watching these fictional prosecutors in New York battle it out in court.
(DIALOGUE FROM LAW AND ORDER)
UPHOFF: As prosecutors, they were doing what I thought was right and, you know, trying to uphold justice and put the bad guys behind bars.
HEFFERNAN: Just like the so-called bad guys he’d heard about being locked in the prison. It’s like Uphoff wanted to be the most nerdy version of a superhero, paperwork instead of a cape. And when he got older, he got his dream. After he got his law degree and practiced for a few years, he moved back to Livingston County, and ran for state’s Attorney — the local prosecutor. He won.
HEFFERNAN: Is it fair for me to say it’s not like you were some somebody coming in who had a bone to pick with the prison being there?
UPHOFF: Oh, yeah. Yeah, no bones at all. In fact, I thought highly of it, and still do.
HEFFERNAN: From WBEZ Chicago, I’m Shannon Heffernan and this is Motive. Season 4, Episode 4: No Justice in Politics.
HEFFERNAN: Seth Uphoff came into office hoping to be the kind of prosecutor he saw on TV. Someone who would take dangerous people off the streets, and put them behind bars. And when he came into office, his job was to prosecute the things you’d expect, like robberies. But one thing that was unusual about being a prosecutor in Pontiac is a bunch of the cases came from inside the prison. People who were already locked up.
HEFFERNAN: And did you realize when you took this job how much you were going to be dealing with prison cases?
UPHOFF: I underestimated it. What I found was that the vast majority of cases were assaults on the correctional staff, but the types of assaults were not the physical assaults that most people would envision. A lot of these assault cases were really bodily fluid cases, so, you know, these were guys who were spitting at the officers, they were throwing urine, they were throwing feces.
HEFFERNAN: As we’ve already mentioned in previous episodes, throwing bodily fluids on a guard can be considered a battery of peace officer. It can add years to someone’s sentence. Uphoff noticed that a lot of the guys getting charged in prison had serious mental illness. Sometimes the court would have to call in a psychiatrist to evaluate if someone was even fit to stand trial. And Uphoff said the guards, the victims in these cases, weren’t always thrilled when he called them in to testify.
UPHOFF: Here they were getting called in as witnesses, sometimes on their day off, sometimes on vacation, and sometimes it was just the wrong time of day. Because if they’re night shift and we’re calling them in at eight, nine o’clock in the morning for trial, They’re supposed to be going home to go to bed.
HEFFERNAN: Right, it’s like you’re asking them to, it’s their 4:00 a.m. in the morning.
UPHOFF: Right. And so I recall an officer coming in, and it was somebody that I knew. I said ‘Hey, you know, what are you here for?’and he goes ‘I’m here for some case, I don’t even don’t even know what I’m in for, and I grabbed the report,’and I said ‘it was this guy, and this what happened,’ and he goes ‘Oh my gosh, that was like 3 years ago.’
UPHOFF: And I said ‘Yeah it was’ and he said, in not so many words ‘I’ve grown up in three years, I would have handled that a lot differently, now than I did then. This guy I thought was disrespecting me, he spit on me, and I wasn’t going to take that. And nowadays I would have handled that differently. If I would have known you guys were going to prosecute it, I would have contacted somebody and said, hey, look, wave this one off’ you know?’
HEFFERNAN: Uphoff estimates he had over 100 prison cases a year and after a while, he starts thinking, ‘Maybe these cases aren’t worth pursuing. At least not so many of them. Some of the victims seem annoyed to come in. And a lot of the defendants already have long sentences.’ Uphoff’s a small-town state’s attorney, can only bite off so much. Maybe this isn’t where he should focus. So, Uphoff says he went to the Warden of Pontiac Correctional Center.
UPHOFF: And we had a long discussion about that and came to an agreement where we said, look, only send us over the cases that you really want charged, that you really believe that you can’t deal with in-house or that need to have the follow through of the State’s Attorney’s office. And we’re happy to follow through on those.
HEFFERNAN:I reached out to the warden from that time, he declined to comment. But, at least from Uphoff’s perspective, The Warden was on board with his proposal. And Uphoff thought, ‘Everyone would love it.’
UPHOFF: So I think it was good for them. I think it was good for us. In retrospect, I. I was a little naïve. And really that was a political novice mistake.
HEFFERNAN: There’s one man that became a kind of symbol of how these prosecutions were working. It’s someone who was charged before Uphoff came into office. But still, ended up having a big impact while Uphoff was state’s attorney.
HEFFERNAN: His name is Anthony Gay. He’s a short guy. Compact. And Gay seems to know everyone who has passed through Pontiac. He even remembers when Major Susan Prentice, from the last episode, started working at Pontiac in the 90’s. He said at first, she wasn’t that bad, kind of chill actually.
ANTHONY GAY: Then she was like the term I like to use a lot cool, like cool white toothpaste.
HEFFERNAN: Cool like, cool-white toothpaste. He said he kind of watched her grow up inside the prison, Saw her change, At the same time he says he was growing up inside the prison, also changing,
GAY: because they say we’re like plants, we either growing or dying.
HEFFERNAN: Gay, you may be noticing, loves having a pithy turn of phrase. Other people’s quotes, but also his own expressions, to. Like when we were talking about something that was unfolding in court he said ‘This case has enough twists and turns to send a pretzel maker into ecstasy.’
HEFFERNAN: I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody who has as many quotes memorized as you.
GAY: I mean, I guess they’re… In fact, I got a book that I’m working on called Quotable Quotes and noteworthy comments, because they’re inspirational right?
HEFFERNAN: Gay’s always working on something like this. He’s already published a book of his reflections from prison called ‘Rope of Hope.’ He struggled with mental illness from a young age. He’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Eventually, he was charged with stealing a hat, and a single dollar bill, from a guy he’d gotten in a physical fight with, that got him on probation. But then, he drove without a license and ended up with a 7 year sentence. He was 20 years old. He spent time in a few prisons around the state.
GAY: When you’re put in a cell like that, you start to psychologically bounce off the wall. So you start craving like human attention, social stimulation and things of the sort, so you become aggravated over the smallest things.
HEFFERNAN: Like in one prison, staff once forgot to give him a pillowcase. He had so little to focus on that this just infuriated him, and he went off on the guards. Another time he said he got in a fight with another incarcerated man, and that sent him to segregation, where he was stuck all day in a cell. He thinks segregation exacerbated his mental illness, affected how he behaved.
GAY: You know, I have a saying I say when I talk about Pontiac, solitary confinement in Pontiac and I said that this environment is so sick, it inspires you to become sick, hoping you can offset sick.
HEFFERNAN: The symptoms of his mental illness got worse. Much worse. I don’t want to be too gorey here, but I do want to drive home how bad it got for Gay in solitary, and the self harm he did. At one point, In segregation, he stabbed his thigh with a spoon, so deep that it had to be removed surgically. Another time, he cut off his testicle and hung it on the cell door. His arms are so full of scars from self harm that they look like tree branches. And Gay says the same desperation that led to self harm, That same need for some kind of stimulation, Any kind of stimulation, is also what led him to act out against staff.
HEFFERNAN: He admits he threw liquids on staff, And he’s sorry for that, Gay has said he knows it horrifies officers, But the thing is, in his mental state at that time, he wanted them to react. He wanted the cell extraction team to come, And to drag him out.
GAY: I used to do this at one point , fight the cell extraction team to feel alive, right? So when you’re cutting yourself, you feel alive. When they beat you up, you feel alive. When they spray you with mace and it’s burning your skin, you come to realize yeah, you’re still human. You’re still alive, right?
HEFFERNAN: He ended up getting criminally charged for throwing what staff reported was a brown liquid at guards. Gay says it was coffee. He was charged with battery. He got 5 years added to his sentence. Gay basically says — the prison put him in segregation, which made his mental illness worse. He acted out, then, they punished him for it. By keeping him in prison, and segregation, even longer.
HEFFERNAN: Gay’s close friend Christopher Knox spent a lot a time in segregation too. Sometimes in seg they could yell underneath their doors and hear each other. Just a side note, when I interviewed Knox, we were outside. The cicadas in Illinois were really loud.
HEFFERNAN: And what what kinds of things would you talk about?
CHRISTOPHER KNOX: Oh, we would reminisce and then we would talk about litigation.
HEFFERNAN: Litigation. Knox has been charged too. So they’d both be in these tiny cells, behind big heavy doors, shouting out the bottom, about legal strategies for the cases they’d been charged with. And also, these civil lawsuits they started filing about prison conditions. Even in segregation, they had a legal right to access the law library. So with very little to do, they’d plow through legal texts.
KNOX: We most definitely had our moments where as he said the law says one thing I say it says another thing. And then we go look it up or something like that. It says something totally different from what we both were saying. But Anthony, he would still say he was right.
KNOX: Right. He’s very stubborn.
HEFFERNAN: Stubborn— but also, very good.
KNOX: Oh, man, they might as well just go ahead and give that man his license.
HEFFERNAN: In fact, there is one case that is legendary. Gay was charged for another alleged battery that occured just after that first liquid case. This all, by the way, still underneath Seth Uphoff’s predecessor — a prosecutor named Tom Brown. Referred to in a Chicago Tribune article as ‘Maximum Tom’ because he had a reputation for always seeking harsh sentences. Now Gay admits he acted out against staff, threw liquids on them, stuff like that. But this incident, the one he was charged for, he said it was false, or at least off the mark.
HEFFERNAN: He admits he was teasing one guard about his girlfriend, a nurse on staff, saying that when he got out of prison he wanted to be with her. Gay said the guard got so mad, he tried to strangle him through the bars and Gay knocked the guard’s hands away. The guard’s story is different. He said Gay unprovoked, reached out through the bars, and hit him in the face. The case was sent to the prosecutor, local state’s attorney, Tom Brown, and Gay was charged with battery.
GAY: They expect it to be a slam dunk case, which all cases mostly are for them, right?
HEFFERNAN: After all, it’s a correctional officer’s word against a man in prison. And this is a prison town, with a prison town jury. In the court transcript, a bunch of potential jurors talk about knowing prison staff. One was a guard, one had a son-in-law who was an assistant warden. Most of those people got dismissed from jury duty, but still, one person ended up on the jury who said she knew 4 different guards,had them as neighbors.
GAY: You have to think about Pontiac Correctional Center is the second highest employer in the Livingston County. So, many people support the correctional officers. So for the most part, you didn’t stand a chance.
HEFFERNAN:On top of that, Gay decided to represent himself. No lawyer. He didn’t trust the local public defenders, assumed they had ties to the prison too. So he’s there, lawyer and defendant, in handcuffs and leg shackles. The deck was really, really, stacked against him.
HEFFERNAN: Reading through the trial transcripts there’s no doubt Anthony Gay’s not your typical lawyer. Like when the judge asks the lawyers if they have anything else before the jury comes in, Gay says ‘Hell no.’ He refers to the judge as ‘man,’ as in ‘What did you want to ask this witness?’ ‘Nothing, man.’ But still, it’s clear, Gay had a strategy of how to win, knew the documentation in the case, inside and out. That allowed him to poke holes in people’s testimony. For example, there was an investigator from the prison that looked into this alleged assault.
GAY: They had no intentions of calling her as a witness. So I called her as like what they call an adversarial witness or a hostile witness and put her on the stand and basically impeached her.
HEFFERNAN: Gay pointed out how her earlier testimony before a grand jury, that he had seriously inured the guard, didn’t match the medical records that showed there were no injuries.
GAY: And then I showed her the medical report, and I compelled her to read that it was totally opposite to what she told the grand jury.
HEFFERNAN: Basically, Gay made this key person look unreliable. He noticed people in the courtroom watching it all unfold.
GAY: , I could hear them in the back saying ‘He’s good. He’s…’ and the prosecutor can hear it, too.
HEFFERNAN: Other people told me Gay was sharp too. In fact, Seth Uphoff, the state’s attorney you heard from earlier, he said when he first took office, one of the judges told him ‘Don’t sleep on Anthony Gay.’ This trial, it was short. And after all the testimony was done, the jury came back with a big fat not guilty. Gay said he was amazed. He came back and shared the news with his friend, that guy in the cell near him, Knox.
HEFFERNAN: Just describe that moment.
KNOX: ‘Hey Chris, Hey Chris.’ ‘What’s up man?’ ‘I did it, I did it, I’m a bad m****f*****. I did it.’ Excuse my language, sorry, but them was his words. “I did it.’ I said ‘What?’ ‘Thomas Brown, I took him down.’
HEFFERNAN: What did you say to Anthony when he said that?
KNOX: ‘That’s my boy. That’s my boy.’ This is a man, self educated himself. You know, he learned the law. And you go in there and you beat a man who went to school for this for years, says a lot.
HEFFERNAN: I get the feeling that this win, It was a big deal not just for Gay, but for the other men on his wing too. He’d beaten Tom Brown, Maximum Tom, the person who prosecuted a lot of cases against people in prison. But this win, in many ways, It’s also when things got worse for Gay. Gay is convinced it set off something in Tom Brown.
GAY: I think he felt embarrassed right? I’m in prison, I’m a prisoner, right? locked up in Pontiac. And, you know, people talk, they say gossip is America’s snack food. So I think people were probably talking about it or he was worried about his image of being beat by a prisoner.
HEFFERNAN: I reached out to Tom Brown several times to talk about this trial, and about Anthony Gay. But he never got back to me. So I can’t know how he felt about Gay or this case, and I don’t know his motivations. But after Gay won, Brown piled on new charges. There was this period in 2000 and 2001 when Gay was in bad shape.
GAY: Because I was really like I was really delusional, gone, right?
HEFFERNAN: He’d been in segregation and was doing a lot of self-harm. But also harming staff, mostly throwing stuff at guards. Though there were also some charges of head butting. Brown kept bringing charges one after another — a battery case for throwing liquid got him 3 years, then another one got him 8. Gay lost case after case, adding 97 years to his sentence, Defacto life.
GAY: I decided I was going to fight even if I end up having to die in there that I was going to fight against it because it was wrong.
HEFFERNAN: But as good of a jailhouse lawyer as he was, he needed help. After a long search, he found a lawyer — Scott Main.
SCOTT MAIN: This case just hit me on on sort of a fundamental elemental level of like this can’t be, It was a no brainer to want to help in any way that I could.
HEFFERNAN: Main argued Gay’s cases in appeals court, and he lost a bunch. It was one of his fellow lawyers who had the idea to take a closer look at the sentencing rules, instead. This is a little technical, but basically, when someone has multiple sentences, there are two ways it can work: The sentences can be served concurrently, meaning at the same time. Three 5 year sentences is still just 5 years behind bars.
HEFFERNAN: That’s how it works in most cases in Illinois. But there are exceptions where sentences can be served consecutively, meaning they stack up on top of each other. So three 5 year sentences is 15 years.
HEFFERNAN: For Gay the sentences were stacked consecutively, and Gay’s lawyer thought that was wrong. More than that, thought the resulting sentence was outrageous.
MAIN: He thought he was coming home in 2005. And all of a sudden he’s not coming home for a hundred years. And what in the hell happened that got us to that point?
HEFFERNAN: And he saw an opportunity. By that point, Tom Brown had left office, and Seth Uphoff had taken his place. Main heard he was handling prison cases a bit differently, and thought they might have a chance with him. He decided to be a thorn in Uphoff’s side about Gay’s case.
MAIN: Our early strategy was, we are going to continue to say there’s something wrong here, we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to keep talking about this and we’re going to keep talking about this and keep talking about this.
UPHOFF: And so when I first got the letter from the attorney, Scott main, my first reaction was ‘Well, Mr. Main clearly doesn’t understand the sentencing structures in Illinois.’ I was pretty dismissive of it.
HEFFERNAN: Even though Uphoff had started prosecuting fewer prison cases, he wasn’t a crusader about prison or anything. He was still a law and order guy. He trusted the system, was sure it had gotten Gay’s sentence right. So Uphoff decided to pawn the case off on his first assistant, Randy Yedinak. He assumed his assistant would read Main’s letter, take a few hours to figure things out, show Gay and his lawyer how the sentencing was done by the book, and that would be that.
UPHOFF: Then sometime later, our first assistant comes back and says ‘Boss might be, might be an issue with this.’ ‘What do you mean?’ And he said ‘I think I think they might be right.’ And I then said ‘Well, I think they’re wrong. And now I think you’re wrong.’ And so I want you to go back and basically do it again. And he came back again and he said, ‘Boss, I checked again. And I I think even more than I did before that they’re right. And I said, well, I think now even more than I did before, that you don’t know what you’re looking at and you don’t know what you’re doing.’ I thought this is sort of starting to waste my time and waste my first assistant’s time.
UPHOFF: And he finally comes back the third time and he says ‘Boss, I’ve laid it all out. And I’m going to give you this packet of information here. And I think that he’s been incorrectly sentenced.’ And at that point, I was a little exasperated and I said ‘you know what, I’ll do this. Maybe this is above your pay grade. Maybe you’re just not getting it. I’ll take care of this,’ because I was feeling pretty confident at that point in time.
HEFFERNAN: But then, when he did start looking, reading the letter of the law, getting into the technical parts, it appeared the court did make Gay’s sentence much longer than it should have been.
UPHOFF: And at that point I started to have a bit of a sinking feeling that this was all wrong. Then I had to start figuring out, where do we go from here? How do we address this and what do we do?
HEFFERNAN: The drama that followed, to borrow one of Gay’s quotes, had enough twists and turns to send a pretzel maker into ecstasy. That’s after the break.
(THEME MUSIC ENDS)
HEFFERNAN: Before Seth Uphoff marched forward and declared that Anthony Gay’s sentencing was wrong, he wanted to do one last thing. See if Tom Brown, the former prosecutor who had charged Gay so many times, had any information Uphoff was missing. So, he set up a lunch date.
HEFFERNAN: And were you nervous during this meeting? Were you feeling awkward? How are you feeling?
UPHOFF: Yeah, I’m trying to think of the word. Awkward, maybe fits it. a little bit tentative because he had been supportive of me taking office, and you never want to come to somebody that you respect and and show up and say you made a mistake.
HEFFERNAN: So he has this history, you know, Tom Brown has this history with Anthony gay,
UPHOFF: Right, as I was told, it was a pretty embarrassing loss, and that may have fueled the the way the cases were charged against Anthony going forward. And so that stuff was in the back of my mind as I was speaking with him.
HEFFERNAN: Uphoff and Brown met outside for lunch at a little restaurant, close to the courthouse. And because Uphoff was worried that it might be uncomfortable he says he waited until they were both about done with their meals to bring up Anthony Gay.
UPHOFF: And I said ‘So I’d want to talk to you, number one, because I’m hoping maybe some light could be shed on this. That would help me figure out, that how I can combat this, how I can show that that this was done correctly,’ because I wasn’t trying to protect Tom. I wanted to protect the system. I wanted to show that the system had worked correctly.
HEFFERNAN: He said Brown’s initial reaction, was: Anthony Gay? That guy’s the worst.
UPHOFF: He’s somebody who deserves to be locked up, you know, for the rest of his life. That’s why we did what we did and, you know, anybody ever tell you the story about this and tell you the story about that.
HEFFERNAN: What stories was he telling you? Do you remember?
UPHOFF: Oh, some of the things Anthony Gay had done to himself. You know, Anthony
HEFFERNAN: Like about mutilation?
UPHOFF: Yeah. You know, Anthony Gay cut out his own testicle and tied it to the door. you know, there’s always these gory stories that would come out.
HEFFERNAN: It was clear to Uphoff, that Tom Brown thought Gay should be locked up
UPHOFF: And he said ‘Well, they’re wrong and we did it right.’ So that was the end of the conversation.
HEFFERNAN: By this point, Uphoff is starting to get signals that adjusting Gay’s sentence might be politically risky. To keep his job, every four years, Uphoff has to be elected. If you’re a politician, in a place like Pontiac you don’t want to piss off prison staff or their friends and family. Even Uphoff’s own first assistant, Randy Yendinak, the guy who came back and said ‘Hey boss, I think they got a point.’ That guy. Uphoff said he starts trying to talk him out of moving forward with recalculating Gay’s sentence.
UPHOFF: And he said at that time ‘Why don’t you just object? They’re going to file this motion, just object. And then the judge is going to not grant it the judge is going to he knows Anthony Gay. He’s going to say Anthony Gay, no way the prosecutors are wrong. And then it’s going to go to the appellate court and then let the appellate prosecutors deal with it. They’re not elected. They’re appointed.’
HEFFERNAN: So basically he’s saying you don’t have to be the hero here, or the villain you just, like, let it go.
UPHOFF: Pass the buck, pass it to somebody else, let somebody else do it, and then you don’t have to take the heat for it.
HEFFERNAN: Did you consider that at all?
HEFFERNAN: For even a second.
HEFFERNAN: I get the impression that Uphoff is a stubborn guy. He’ll consider arguments and think through them. But he doesn’t go in much for niceties. A classic ‘I’m not here to make friends’ kind of guy. So all this political talk, about who would think what, it didn’t really change much for him. He reviewed the law, decided what it said. And that was it. So he reached out to Scott Main, Gay’s lawyer and said: looks like you’re right.
HEFFERNAN: How did you feel when you got that email?
MAIN: Unbelievably happy, I had been sort of a long time attorney that did not ever sort of expect that the end of the end of a conversation would be like ‘Yeah, we agree.’
HEFFERNAN: Gay was even more shocked. Because he basically didn’t trust anyone in Pontiac. Remember he wouldn’t even take a public defender because he thought they’d be on the prison’s side. And now, here was the State’s Attorney, basically saying he should get out earlier.
GAY: I was definitely surprised because I know there’s a culture there, right? There’s a saying that says every man who is truly a man must learn to stand alone in the midst of all others, if need be against all others. And he reminds me of that. So I have to tilt my hat to him for that, for sure.
HEFFERNAN: Gay’s guilty verdicts still stood, but the lawyers went back and forth, recalculating how long he had to serve behind bars. If approved, it meant instead of spending his life in prison, Gay would go home soon. They agreed to file a motion together. But Uphoff had one caveat.
UPHOFF:, I don’t want a big press conference out in front of Pontiac Prison. Oh, look, you know, we prevailed on all this, I don’t want a big media fanfare.
HEFFERNAN: For Main and Gay, this was a major moral victory about prison, mental illness and solitary, about how punishment can spin out of control, go beyond logic. But for Uphoff, it was a case of just following the law, and trusting the system. And he hoped the whole thing would go by without too much attention. Now, they just had to get a judge to agree — there was a hearing.
HEFFERNAN: Yeah, what was going through your mind in the courtroom that day?
GAY: I mean, I was very excited right? Because I never gave up hope, right, and that was the payoff right there.
HEFFERNAN: After all that time and work, once they were in the courtroom, the whole thing went pretty quick. The judge asked a few questions, and then talked directly to Uphoff.
GAY: I don’t remember his words verbatim, but he asked him if he was sure this is something he wanted to do and he told him this could end up costing him his career or it could end up winning him a Nobel peace prize.
HEFFERNAN: Gay’s memory isn’t exact, but it’s not far off. We got the transcripts. The judge told Uphoff, basically, if Gay went on to commit a serious crime, it would likely be ‘career buster’ for any state jobs. Quote ‘because you can win a Nobel peace prize after that, all the people in this county are going to remember, is what happened in the courtroom today — and on whose recommendation.’
UPHOFF: He had been a judge for a long time, he had seen people come and go. He was probably a little more politically astute than I was at that time.
HEFFERNAN: According to the transcript, Uphoff told the judge he understood, but it’s his obligation to apply the law equally and fairly. Whatever the risks were for Uphoff, the stakes were of course, much higher for Gay. His lawyer, Scott Main.
MAIN: I think it was just an incredibly just emotionally charged moment. You thought you’re never going to be able to come home to there is now a real chance that I may come home very soon. And that was something that will never leave me.
HEFFERNAN: Then, just like that, the judge, granted their request. There were still details to work out, but Gay would be going home within a few years.
HEFFERNAN: What was it like driving back to the prison then, like being in that van, going back to the facility after that?
GAY: Man, a dream fulfilled. The fight was worth it. Like when I got back and I told people, people just like. Prisoners was just excited. like when I went to the cell house as soon as I walked in, they were screaming, like, cheering and happy like you going home! I mean, they, like, made a lot of noise, right?
HEFFERNAN: It was such a rarity to see someone like them win so big. Gay’s friend, Christopher Knox, who had racked up charges just like Gay. He said this day was the first time, in a long time, that he felt hope that he might make it out of prison alive.
KNOX: I ain’t never had that feeling, many years in time when I was going through all that stuff, thought I’d ever see these streets again. I thought I was done. They was either going to kill me or I was going to kill myself. That’s how I felt. He motivated me, inspired me in so many ways, man. You know, because his story, It’s ugly, it’s ugly, but at the same time, though, it’s beautiful, just like mines. it’s so ugly, but it’s beautiful.
HEFFERNAN: Even though there was no press conference, Newspapers still picked up the story.
UPHOFF: I was frustrated because the headlines were, you know ‘Prosecutor agrees to reduce sentence’ or ‘Inmate’s sentence reduced.’ It wasn’t ‘Inmate sentence corrected.’ It wasn’t ‘Prosecutor ensures correct sentence applied.’
HEFFERNAN: It was impossible, at that point, for Uphoff to believe that this decision about Gay, would go unnoticed. But he was still two years away from election, and he hoped maybe by then it would be ancient history. But then, when the election rolled around, there was a twist. Someone intimately familiar with the Gay case ran against him.
RANDY YEDINAK: I appreciate y’all being here. My name is Randy Yedinak, and I do want to be your next Livingston County State’s Attorney. This county has a lot of issues…
HEFFERNAN: Yep, Randy Yedinak. Seth Uphoff’s now former first assistant. The guy who initially looked into Gay’s case, the guy who Uphoff said warned him he wasn’t being politically smart when he marched forward with recalcuating Gay’s sentence.
HEFFERNAN: Were you surprised that he decided to run against you?
UPHOFF: I was under the particular circumstances.
HEFFERNAN: Cause you were, were you close?
UPHOFF: Yes, we were friends. We had lunch together almost every day. I had been invited over to his house for dinner with his wife and his kids. And I thought of him as really, truly the highest regard of first assistant, which was my right hand man.
HEFFERNAN: Uphoff was hurt. His sidekick was now his competitor. But what really got to him was when people on Yedinak’s side of the race began bringing up Anthony Gay, and saying Uphoff had let off a dangerous criminal. One letter to the editor in the local paper explicitly mentioned Anthony Gay. It warned people to note the date Gay would be released, because anyone who came in contact with him, was at risk of assault. Quote ‘Uphoff’s job is to protect us. He has failed and put us all in danger. This is why I and everyone should vote for Randy Yedinak.’
HEFFERNAN: Yedinak posted the letter to his Facebook page. The local AFSCME union, which represents a lot of guards, endorsed Yedinak too. I didn’t see them mention Gay by name, but they said they were confident Yedinak would quote ‘ensure violent criminals who assault staff will not be granted early release.’
HEFFERNAN: Randy Yedinak never agreed to an interview. But we did go back and forth on email. Yedinak said he thought the issue of Anthony Gay didn’t play a huge role in the election. And, to be fair, reading newspaper articles and social media from the time — it does seem like there were lots of other issues. Local police didn’t think Uphoff was friendly enough with law enforcement. People characterized him as stubborn, not willing to cooperate with others in the criminal justice system. Which, I can believe. That adds up for someone who was willing to do what he did on the Anthony Gay case. In the end, Uphoff was pummeled. He lost 60 to 40.
HEFFERNAN: Do you think that the Anthony Gay thing had enough influence on the race, that it made a difference?
UPHOFF: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say. It was a big voting bloc with that union and that it wasn’t just the union also because that anti-law enforcement sentiment, or he’s not going to stand up for officers, also trickled over into regular law enforcement and so.
HEFFERNAN: So you’re not sure the race would have been different had Anthony Gay not had happened?
UPHOFF: No, I don’t know. It at least in my opinion, it at least would have been a lot closer. I may not have won that election anyway. I don’t know, we’ll never know.
HEFFERNAN: And so after all this happens in the State’s Attorney’s race, did your way, you felt walking around town change? I mean, this is your hometown. Did it change the feeling at all?
UPHOFF: Nobody likes to lose and to lose publicly. I mean, it’s politics is rough. It’s a rough business but you know especially as a prosecutor, you’re elected to make the tough decisions, to make the tough calls. And if that means that someday you’re not in that spot, then so be it. And you know, politics, there’s no justice in politics.
HEFFERNAN: Uphoff said if he had to do it again, he’d still work to recalculate Gay’s sentence. But he’d be more diplomatic about the whole thing,. reach out to the union. Maybe work on his talking points, so the press coverage was better. He thinks if people would have understood that he was just following the rules. They’d see how he was truly a law and order guy, not some enemy of law enforcement. But honestly, I’m not sure if that’s true. I don’t think Uphoff’s story is about how he failed to explain things well enough.
HEFFERNAN: I think it’s a story about how ‘law and order,’ isn’t really what the prison system is run on. At least not ‘law and order,’ as Uphoff describes it, a strict adherence to rules, carefully parsed out and applied consistently to everybody. Like, you remember Susan Prentice from last episode, with the urine or water, and the email about the plans of biting? That case went to Randy Yedinak to make a decision about whether or not to charge her. But he said he had a conflict of interest. So the case was sent along to a special prosecutor, someone who presumably could be more objective— Tom Brown, Maximum Tom. And Brown declined to charge Prentice saying there was insufficient evidence for a successful prosecution.
HEFFERNAN: When I hear that, and then I hear about Anthony Gay and his prosecutions, I think, who is the law for? Who is being kept in order? There are two groups of people, prisoners and guards, who both can do wrong things. But one has the ability to elect the person who decides when to bring charges. The other, has very little recourse. That’s how a man goes from a sentence of 7 years, to a sentence of over 100 years. That’s what it comes down to for me. Power. Politics.
HEFFERNAN: Gay was released in 2018. He stacked overflowing boxes of his old legal files in his dad’s garage.
GAY: I felt like, the fight for justice had paid off. But I felt like the mission wasn’t complete because it’s bigger than me.
HEFFERNAN: Because there were other guys on that wing who are still in the same situation you had been?
HEFFERNAN: What do you think it meant to them to see, for them to see you win?
GAY: I know for sure it offered them hope. You know, I got a letter from one from one of the guys that I had wrote and told him that I’m finna start working on something to try to help him and that I know he was surprised to hear from me. And I got his letter right now and he was like ‘Yeah, because people say that all the time. Right. And they forget about you.’ But, I’ll never forget about him because I’m. I know up close and personal what they going through.
HEFFERNAN: People in prison with mental illness are still being prosecuted. The Department of Corrections did not answer a detailed list of questions we sent, but told us that they are obligated to report crimes to the State’s Attorney, still Randy Yediank. I also asked Yedinak over email, about the prosecutions, And he said quote ‘Contrary to popular belief correctional officers do not sign up for this type of behavior when they choose to wear the uniform. It is not part of their job to be physically assaulted, have urine or feces thrown on them or be spat upon.’
HEFFERNAN: Gay says of course staff are horrified when people throw stuff at them. But he believes that if people are really concerned about staff assaults, instead of prosecutions, they should fix the problems that cause people to act out — like poor mental health treatment, and segregation.
GAY: They’re not doing these things because they’re evil. They’re not doing these things because they hate correctional officers. They’re doing these things because they’re miserable.
HEFFERNAN: Illinois has reduced its use of segregation, solitary, in recent years. But, it’s still in use. The Department of Corrections said in a written statement that they do consider a person’s mental health when placing them in segregation. When I talked to Gay he was on zoom, at his parents house where he lived. There was a poster behind him that said ‘Dismantle Solitary Confinement.’ It’s part of a campaign he’s been working on. He’s testified in front of state legislators, and in fact, There’s a Bill that, if passed, would further limit solitary in Illinois. It’s named after Gay. But, it’s stalled in the legislature.
HEFFERNAN: As I’ve worked on these stories, whether about the tight knit communities at Pontiac, or all the ways things were hidden at Western Illinois Correctional Center, every once and awhile, I’d be like but wait, how did it get like this? I wanted to go back to the beginning, At least the beginning of mass incarceration as we know it today, and figure out how the literal infrastructure of it got built, buildings and staff. It’s huge, 27 prisons in Illinois.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I built a lot of prisons while I was governor, I mean, you can’t you can’t be for tougher law enforcement and then say, but no, I’m not going to build any more facilities.
HEFFERNAN: And I wanted to know, why so many of them were in these small, white, rural towns?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The farming went bad in rural areas and so there was no jobs for people in Central, Southern and Western Illinois. And they came up with ‘Hey, we can put these people back to work. Instead of farming cattle, we can farm humans.’
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now I’m not supposed to be partisan or political in my job, but if I were the governor, I’d give you the prison.
HEFFERNAN: Next time on Motive, the Prison Sweepstakes, a competition for towns to win a prison— with chili cook-offs, parades, and rap videos.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self harm contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or at suicidepreventionlifeline.org.