A dark hole is how a Rock Island man incarcerated for nearly 25 years describes his time in solitary confinement.

He’s sharing his story with Augustana College students Wednesday in hopes of bringing about change.

Anthony Gay was a young man when he was sent to prison.

It was following a probation violation for a petty crime.

His original sentence was seven years but that extended by decades after incidents with guards he said because of his time in solitary worsened his mental illness.

The 44-year-old was released in August of 2018.

He told Local 4 News the cells he was in were no bigger than the size of a parking space. It’s a space the grows smaller when a bed and toilet is added. 

That’s where Gay said he spent all but an hour or two a day.

What he told Local 4 News made the small space worse was he was all alone. 

Spent nearly two decades in solitary, Anthony Gay said, “The only way that I was able to receive social stimulation and human contact was if I acted out, engaged in self-harm.”

Anthony Gay said of his 24 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections’ prisons, 22 was in a cell with an average measurement of six by nine feet.

“I was in Tamms, Pontiac, Menard, Dixon, Shawnee.” Gay said, “Pretty much five prisons transferred back and forth to one solitary cell to the next.”

But now that he’s out of those gated facilities, he tries to keep it from confining his thoughts.

Gay said, “I just keep it in my head not to keep me down and keep moving cause there’s a bigger picture than myself.”

His mission is to help overhaul the prison system.

“I want to see solitary confinement dismantled. I want to see more educational programs. Better mental health treatment, more out of cell time and basically provide an opportunity for people to become productive citizens,” said Gay.

Part of his reason for speaking out is providing a voice to those who can’t discuss what is happening.

Gay said, “Many people are still in those conditions of confinement, and unless someone throw them a rope of hope, they’ll be left there to die.”

Gay hopes by sharing his story of what he calls an “axis of evil” including to students at Augustana College, it will shine a light on what happens in those cells and engage them in his cause.

Sophomore Mackenzie Peterson said, “We don’t hear enough about what it’s like in the prison system and we kind of turn our eyes to it cause, you know, they’re in prison, so they have to have done something bad.”

For students studying topics around mental health, Gay’s story shows the need for options to treat, heal and rehabilitate. 

Peterson said, “As an opportunity instead of a consequence of the prison system.”

That’s the door Gay hopes to one day see opened.

Gay said, “Slowly but surely I think change will come.” 

One of the groups he’s working with is the Uptown People’s Law Center.

They filed a lawsuit several years ago reducing Gay’s sentence by about 70 years citing his declining mental illness.

That allowed for his release in 2018.

He was speaking at the Augustana Winter Symposium.

It wrapped up Wednesday with a performance by the group Die Jim Crow

It’s producing an album of songs by current and former inmates.