Saturday, 18 February 2023 07:05

How a 7-Year Prison Sentence Turns Into Over 100

Credit: Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

Anthony Gay was sentenced to seven years in prison on a parole violation. He ended up with 97 years added to his sentence. How did that happen?

WBEZ reporter Shannon Heffernan brings us the story of Anthony Gay, who was sentenced to seven years in prison on a parole violation but ended up with 97 years added to his sentence. Gay lives with serious mental illness, and after time in solitary confinement, he began to act out. He was repeatedly charged with battery – often for throwing liquids 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” prosecutor has to decide between prison-town politics and doing what he believes the law requires?

Finally, host Al Letson speaks with Ear Hustle co-creator and co-host Earlonne Woods about the power of local prosecutors and the complicated politics of prison towns.

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in April 2022.

This episode is a partnership with the podcast Motive from WBEZ Chicago.

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Listen: Gabrieleen Silver Queen (Ear Hustle)


WBEZ 91.5

Lead reporter for Motive: Shannon Heffernan | Producers for Motive: Jesse Dukes with Joe Deceault and Marie Mendoza | Editor for Motive: Rob Wildeboer | Executive producer for Motive: Kevin Dawson | Additional reporting and production: Colin McNulty, Candace Mittel Kahn and Arno Pedram | Original music: Cue Shop | Sound engineering: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Production manager for Reveal: Steven Rascón | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martinez | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: Ever since Seth Uphoff was a little kid, he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. No, not a fireman, musician, or famous athlete.
SETH UPHOFF: I’m a little odd in that, at about the age of 12, I figured out that I wanted to be a prosecutor. 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 & Order.
Al Letson: Law & Order, as in the TV show, salacious court cases ripped from the headlines. Seth grew up watching these fictional prosecutors in New York battle it out in court.
SETH UPHOFF: As prosecutors, they were doing what I thought was right and trying to uphold justice and put the bad guys behind bars.
Al Letson: Maybe part of his fascination with Law & Order, both the show and the career, was because he grew up in Livingston County, Illinois, home of the Pontiac Correctional Center.
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. Depending on which way the wind is blowing and how clear of a day it is, you can hear things from even out where I lived. The prison was a very large, looming figure in Livingston County.
SETH 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. Growing up, going over to his house, you’d see his dad come home from work. He would tell stories about what goes on in there. As somebody who was growing up in a small farming community, you’d hear about some of these guys, and it would make your eyes widen. It weirdly gave you a little sense of pride that, wow, we’re dealing with big things here in this little area.
Al Letson: When Seth grew up, he got his law degree and eventually moved back home to Livingston County, where he ran for the position of state’s attorney. That’s the local prosecutor. He won the election, but once he got the job, his sense of right and wrong didn’t always square with how the criminal justice system actually works.
Al Letson: This week, we’re partnering with the podcast Motive from WBEZ Chicago to find out what happened when Seth tried to buck the system. The show’s host, Shannon Heffernan, came across his story as she was investigating blind spots at big prisons in small towns.
Al Letson: Before we get started, a warning. Today’s show covers topics of self-harm.
Al Letson: Here’s Shannon.
Shannon Heffern…: 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. 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Did you realize when you took this job how much you were going to be dealing with prison cases?
SETH 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. These were guys who were spitting at the officers. They were throwing urine. They were throwing feces.
Shannon Heffern…: Throwing bodily fluids on a guard can be considered battery of a 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. Uphoff said the guards, the victims in these cases, weren’t always thrilled when he called them in to testify.
SETH 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 on night shift and we’re calling them in at 8:00, 9:00 in the morning for trial, they’re supposed to be going home to go to bed.
Shannon Heffern…: Right. It’s like you’re asking them to… It’s their 4:00 a.m. in the morning.
SETH UPHOFF: Right. I recall an officer coming in, and it was somebody that I knew, and I said, “Hey, what are you here for?” He goes, “I’m here for some case, and I don’t even know if I remember this.” Then I grabbed the report and I said, “It was this guy, and this is what happened.” He goes, “Oh my gosh, that was like three years ago.” I said, “Yeah. Yeah, it was.”
SETH UPHOFF: In not so many words, he said, “I’ve grown up a lot in three years. I would’ve handled that a lot differently now than I did then. This guy was, I thought, disrespecting me, and he spit on me. I wasn’t going to take that from him, and so I wrote this thing up. But man, nowadays, I would’ve handled that very differently. I don’t even know, if I would’ve known you guys were going to prosecute it, I would’ve contacted somebody and said, ‘Hey, look, waive this one off.’”
Shannon Heffern…: 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 is 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.
SETH UPHOFF: 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. We’re happy to follow through on those.”
Shannon Heffern…: 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 this proposal, and Uphoff thought everyone would love it.
SETH UPHOFF: I think it was good for them. I think it was good for us. In retrospect, I was a little naive, and really, that was a political novice mistake.
Shannon Heffern…: There’s one man who became a kind of symbol for 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. His name is Anthony Gay. He’s a short guy, compact, and he says he was growing up inside the prison, changing.
Anthony Gay: They say we’re like plants; we’re either growing or dying.
Shannon Heffern…: Gay loves having a pithy turn of phrase, other people’s quotes but also his own expressions. When we’re talking about something that was unfolding in court, he said, “This case has enough twists and turns to send a pretzel maker into ecstasy.”
Shannon Heffern…: I don’t think I’ve ever met somebody who has as many quotes memorized as you.
Anthony Gay: In fact, I’ve got a book that I’m working on called Quotable Quotes and Noteworthy Comments, because they’re inspirational, right?
Shannon Heffern…: Gay is 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 seven-year sentence. He was 20 years old. He spent time in a few prisons around the state.
Anthony Gay: When you’re put in a cell like that, you start to psychologically bounce off the wall. You start craving human attention, social stimulation, and things of the sort, so you become aggravated over the smallest things.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 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.
Anthony Gay: I have a saying I say when I talk about Pontiac, solitary confinement in Pontiac. I said that this environment is so sick, it inspires you to become sick, hoping you can offset sick.
Shannon Heffern…: The symptoms of his mental illness got worse, much worse. I don’t want to be too gory 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 mutilated his privates. His arms are so full of scars from self-harm that they look like tree branches.
Shannon Heffern…: Gay says the same desperation that led him 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. 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 the time, he wanted them to react. He wanted the cell extraction team to come and to drag him out.
Anthony Gay: I used to do this at one point, fight the cell extraction team to feel alive. 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 five 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Gay’s close friend Christopher Knox spent a lot of 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.
Shannon Heffern…: What kinds of things would you talk about?
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: Oh, we would reminisce and then we would talk about litigation.
Shannon Heffern…: Litigation. Knox had been charged too. They’d 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. With very little to do, they’d plow through legal texts.
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: We most definitely had our moments where he said the law says one thing, I said it says another thing, and then when we’d 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Stubborn.
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: Right. He’s stubborn, very stubborn.
Shannon Heffern…: Stubborn, but also very good.
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: Oh, man. They might as well just go on and give that man his license.
Shannon Heffern…: In fact, there’s one case that is legendary. Gay was charged for another alleged battery that occurred 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Now, Gay admits he acted out against staff, threw liquids on them, stuff like that. But this incident, the one that he was charged for, he said it was false, or at least off the mark. 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.
Anthony Gay: They expect it to be a slam-dunk case, which all cases mostly are for him.
Shannon Heffern…: After all, it’s a correctional officer’s word against the word of 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 four different guards, had them as neighbors.
Anthony Gay: You have to think about Pontiac Correctional Center is the second highest employer in Livingston County, so many people support the correctional officers. So for the most part, you didn’t stand a chance.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Reading through the trial transcripts, there’s no doubt Anthony Gay is not your typical lawyer. When the judge asks lawyers if they have anything else before the jury comes in, Gay says, “Hell no.” And he refers to the judge as “man,” as in “What do 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.
Anthony Gay: They had no intentions of calling her as a witness, so I called her as what they call an adversarial witness or a hostile witness, and put her on the stand and basically impeached her.
Shannon Heffern…: Gay pointed out how her earlier testimony before a grand jury, that he had seriously injured the guard, didn’t match the medical records that showed there were no injuries.
Anthony Gay: Then I showed her the medical report and compelled her to read that it was totally opposite to what she told the grand jury.
Shannon Heffern…: Basically, Gay made this key person look unreliable. He noticed people in the courtroom watching it all unfold.
Anthony Gay: I could hear them in the back saying, “He’s good,” and the prosecutor could hear it too.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Just describe that moment.
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: “Hey, Chris. Hey, Chris.” “What’s up, man?” “I did it. I did it. I’m a bad motherfucker. I did it.” Excuse my language, sorry, but them was his words, “I did it.” I said, “What?” “Thomas Brown, I took him down.”
Shannon Heffern…: What did you say to Anthony when he said that?
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: “That’s my boy. That’s my boy.” This is a man, self-educated himself. 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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, was also when things got worse for Gay. Gay is convinced it set off something in Tom Brown.
Anthony Gay: I think he felt embarrassed. I’m a prisoner locked up in Pontiac. People talk. They say gossip is America’s snack food. I think people were probably talking about it, or he was worried about his image of being beat by a prisoner.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Anthony Gay: I was really delusional, gone.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 some charges of headbutting. Brown kept bringing charges one after another. A battery case for throwing liquid got him three years, then another one got him eight. Gay lost case after case, adding 97 years to his sentence, de facto life.
Anthony 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 sentencing rules instead.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 five-year sentences is still just five years behind bars. That’s how it works in most cases in Illinois, but there are exceptions where sentences can be served consecutively, meaning they stack on top of each other, so three five-year sentences is 15 years.
Shannon Heffern…: For Gay, the sentences were stacked consecutively, and Gay’s lawyer thought that was wrong. More than that, he thought the resulting sentence was outrageous.
Scott Main: He thought he was coming home in 2005, and all of a sudden he’s not coming home for 100 years. What in the hell happened that got us to that point?
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Scott Main: Our early strategy was, we are going to continue to say there’s something wrong here, and we’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to keep talking about this. We’re going to keep talking about this and keep talking about this.
SETH UPHOFF: 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 sentencing right. 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.
SETH UPHOFF: Then sometime later, our First Assistant comes back and says, “Boss, might be an issue with this.” “What do you mean?” He said, “I think they might be right.” I then said, “Well, I think they’re wrong, and now I think you’re wrong. I want you to go back and basically do it again.”
SETH UPHOFF: He came back again and he said, “Boss, I checked again, and I think even more than I did before that they’re right.” 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 starting to waste my time and waste my First Assistant’s time.”
SETH UPHOFF: 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. I think that he’s been incorrectly sentenced.” 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
SETH UPHOFF: 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?
Shannon Heffern…: The drama that followed, to borrow one of Gay’s quotes, had enough twists and turns to send a pretzel maker into ecstasy.
Al Letson: Seth Uphoff knew what he wanted to do, but now he had to get a judge to agree with him.
SETH UPHOFF: He had been a judge for a long time. He had seen people come and go probably. He was probably a little more politically astute than I was at that time.
Al Letson: That’s coming up next on Reveal.
Al Letson: Hey, hey, hey, it’s time for another Al’s Podcast Pick, and I am so excited to tell you about this one. It’s called Open and Shut, and it’s hosted by former Reveal intern Phoebe Petrovic. Listen, Phoebe was amazing when she worked at Reveal, which makes me so excited to listen to this seven-part investigative series that dives deep into the careers of two Wisconsin district attorneys to show how prosecutors hold more power than any other official in the criminal justice system, and what’s at stake for victims, the accused, and all of us. That’s Open and Shut from Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: We’re teaming up today with the podcast Motive from WBEZ Chicago. Their new season uncovers what’s happening at big prisons inside small towns, like Pontiac Correctional Center in Livingston County, Illinois. Seth Uphoff was the state’s attorney there. He realized that many of the cases his office was handling were coming from inside the prison, so he decided to change that, which brings us to Anthony Gay.
Al Letson: Anthony was originally sentenced to seven years, but was facing more than 100 after being charged for various offenses while he was in prison. Seth thought that was wrong and decided to meet with the man who had a key role in adding all those extra years to Anthony’s sentence, the former state’s attorney, Tom Brown. Here’s reporter Shannon Heffernan again.
Shannon Heffern…: When I talked with Seth Uphoff, I asked him what it was like to meet up with Tom Brown, especially since he planned to question the way he had done things.
Shannon Heffern…: Were you nervous during this meeting? Were you feeling awkward? How are you feeling?
SETH 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 show up and say, “You made a mistake.”
Shannon Heffern…: He has this history. You know Tom Brown has this history with Anthony Gay.
SETH UPHOFF: Right. As I was told, it was a pretty embarrassing loss, and that may have fueled the way the cases were charged against Anthony going forward. That stuff was in the back of my mind as I was speaking with him.
Shannon Heffern…: Uphoff and Brown met outside for lunch at a little restaurant close to the courthouse. Because Uphoff was worried it might be uncomfortable, he says he waited until they were both about done with their meals to bring up Anthony Gay.
SETH UPHOFF: I said, “I’m wanting to talk to you, number one, because I’m hoping maybe some light could be shed on this that would help me figure out how I can combat this, how I can show that this was done correctly.” I wasn’t trying to protect Tom. I wanted to protect the system. I wanted to show that the system had worked correctly.
Shannon Heffern…: He said Brown’s initial reaction was, “Anthony Gay? That guy’s the worst.”
SETH UPHOFF: “He’s somebody who deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life. That’s why we did what we did. Did anybody ever tell you the story about this and tell you the story about that?”
Shannon Heffern…: What stories was he telling you? Do you remember?
SETH UPHOFF: Oh, some of the things Anthony Gay had done to himself. Anthony-
Shannon Heffern…: Like about mutilation?
SETH UPHOFF: Yeah. There was always these gory stories that would come out.
Shannon Heffern…: It was clear to Uphoff that Tom Brown thought Gay should be locked up.
SETH UPHOFF: He said, “Well, they’re wrong, and we did it right.” That was the end of the conversation.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 Yedinak, the guy who came back and said, “Hey, boss, I think they’ve got a point,” that guy, Uphoff said he starts trying to talk him out of moving forward with recalculating Gay’s sentence.
SETH UPHOFF: He said at that time, “Why don’t you just object? They’re going to file this motion. Just object. Then the judge is going to not grant it. The judge is going to… He knows Anthony Gay. He’s going to say, ‘No, Anthony Gay, no way the prosecutors are wrong.’ 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.”
Shannon Heffern…: Basically, he’s saying, “You don’t have to be the hero here, or the villain. You just let it go.”
SETH 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Did you consider that at all?
Shannon Heffern…: For even a second?
Shannon Heffern…: 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. 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. He reached out to Scott Main, Gay’s lawyer, and said, “Looks like you’re right.”
Shannon Heffern…: How did you feel when you got that email?
Scott Main: Unbelievably happy. I had been a longtime attorney that did not ever expect that the end of a conversation would be with, “Yeah, we agree.”
Shannon Heffern…: 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. Now here was the state’s attorney basically saying he should get out earlier.
Anthony Gay: I was definitely surprised because I know there’s a culture there. 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.” He reminds me of that, so I have to tip my hat to him for that, for sure.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 won caveat.
SETH UPHOFF: I don’t want a big press conference out in front of Pontiac prison, “Oh, look, we prevailed on all this.” I don’t want a big media fanfare.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Yeah, what was going through your mind in the courtroom that day?
Anthony Gay: I was very excited, because I never gave up hope, and that was the payoff right there.
Shannon Heffern…: After all that time and work, once they were in the courtroom, the whole thing went pretty quick. A judge asked a few questions and then talked directly to Uphoff.
Anthony Gay: I don’t remember his words verbatim, but he asked him, is he sure this is something that he wanted to do? He told him this could end up costing him his career, or it could end up winning him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 a “career buster” for any state jobs “because you can win a Nobel prize after that. All people in this county are going to remember is what happened in the courtroom today, and on whose recommendation.”
SETH UPHOFF: He had been a judge for a long time. He had seen people come and go probably. He was probably a little more politically astute than I was at that time.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Scott Main: I think it was just an incredibly 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 very soon. That was something that will never leave me.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Shannon Heffern…: What was it like driving back to the prison then, being in that van going back to the facility after that?
Anthony Gay: Man, a dream fulfilled. The fight was worth it. When I got back and I told people, people were just like… Prisoners was just excited. When I went to the cell house, as soon as I walked in, they were screaming, cheering and happy, “You’re going home!” They made a lot of noise.
Shannon Heffern…: It was such a rarity to see someone like them win so big. Gay’s friend Christopher Knox, who had wrecked 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.
CHRISTOPHER KNO…: I never had that feeling, in the many years of time when I was going through all that stuff, thought I’d ever see these streets again. I thought I was done. They was going to either kill me or I was going to kill myself. That’s how I felt. He motivated me, inspired me in so many ways, man. His story, it’s ugly, but at the same time, though, it’s beautiful, just like mines. It’s so ugly, but it’s beautiful.
Shannon Heffern…: Even though there was no press conference, newspapers still picked up the story.
SETH UPHOFF: I was frustrated because the headlines were Prosecutor Agrees to Reduce Sentence or Inmate Sentence Reduced. It wasn’t It Made Sentence Corrected. It wasn’t Prosecutor Ensures Correct Sentence Applied.
Shannon Heffern…: 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. 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-
Shannon Heffern…: 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 recalculating Gay’s sentence.
Shannon Heffern…: Were you surprised that he decided to run against you?
SETH UPHOFF: I was, under the particular circumstances.
Shannon Heffern…: Were you close?
SETH 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. I thought of him as really, truly, the highest regard of First Assistant, which is my right-hand man.
Shannon Heffern…: 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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. “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.” Yedinak posted the letter to his Facebook page.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 “ensure violent criminals who assault staff will not be granted early release.”
Shannon Heffern…: 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. 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 willing to do what he did on the Anthony Gay case. In the end, Uphoff was pummeled. He lost 60 to 40.
Shannon Heffern…: Do you think that the Anthony Gay thing had enough influence on the race that it made a difference?
SETH UPHOFF: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say. It was a big voting bloc with that union. 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.
Shannon Heffern…: So you’re not sure if the race would’ve been different had Anthony Gay not have happened one way or the other.
SETH UPHOFF: No, I don’t know. At least in my opinion, it at least would’ve been a lot closer. I may not have won that election anyway. I don’t know. We’ll never know.
Shannon Heffern…: After all this happens in the state’s attorney’s race, did the way you felt walking around town change? This is your hometown. Did it change the feeling at all?
SETH UPHOFF: Nobody likes to lose, and to lose publicly. Politics is rough. It’s a rough business. But 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. There’s no justice in politics.
Shannon Heffern…: 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’ve 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.
Shannon Heffern…: 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. 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.
Shannon Heffern…: There are two groups of people, prisoners and guards, who can both 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 seven years to a sentence of over 100 years. That’s what it comes down to for me, power, politics.
Shannon Heffern…: Gay was released in 2018. He stacked overflowing boxes of his old legal files in his dad’s garage.
Anthony 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.
Shannon Heffern…: Because there were other guys on that wing who were still in the same situation you had been.
Anthony Gay: Right.
Shannon Heffern…: What do you think it meant for them to see you win?
Anthony Gay: I know for sure it offered them hope. I got a letter from one of the guys that I had wrote and told him that I’m going to start working on something to try to help him, and I know he was surprised to hear from me. I got his letter right now. He was like, “Yeah, because people say that all the time, and they forget about you.” But I’ll never forget about him, because I know up close and personal what they’re going through.
Shannon Heffern…: 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 they are obligated to report crimes to the state’s attorney, still Randy Yedinak. I also asked Yedinak over email about the prosecutions. He said, “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.”
Shannon Heffern…: Gay says, of course, staff are horrified when prisoners 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.
Anthony 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.
Al Letson: 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.
Al Letson: When Shannon talked to Anthony, he was on Zoom at his parents’ house, where he lived. There was a poster behind him that said Dismantle Solitary Confinement. It’s a part of a campaign he’s been working on. He’s testified in front of state lawmakers, and in fact, there’s a bit ill that, if passed, would further limit solitary in Illinois. It’s named after Anthony, but it’s stalled in the legislature.
Al Letson: We’ll have more after a break. You’re listening to Reveal.
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Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: We just heard how the prosecutor in a prison town got voted out of office after helping a man reduce his sentence. The new season of the podcast Ear Hustle takes a deep look at prison towns. In a recent episode, the hosts of the show, Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor, head to Northern California.
Earlonne Woods: Susanville has been in the news a lot because it’s on the verge of a really big change. It’s a prison town that’s about to lose its prison.
Nigel Poor: Yes, and it really made me wonder about how people in the town are dealing with this idea that they’ve created life in a town that’s been sculpted by the prison system. I just wonder, are they wrestling with that?
Earlonne Woods: A few months ago, we headed up to Susanville, took a cool little road trip.
Nigel Poor: Yes. I always love to get on the road. One of the things that I was so excited about with this trip, Earlonne, was that we didn’t have a specific agenda. We were just going to go, get there, and then try to find people to talk to, and just see how this story was going to unfold.
Al Letson: Joining me now is Earlonne Woods. For those of you who don’t follow his show, you should be. But if you don’t, he started working on it when he was doing time in San Quentin. Now, thankfully, he’s out of prison and still working for the show from the outside.
Al Letson: Earlonne, my mellow, what’s up?
Earlonne Woods: I’m doing all right, man. I’m enjoying life, man. That’s all I can say. I’m enjoying life.
Al Letson: No doubt. It’s been a minute since we had a chance to catch up.
Earlonne Woods: Right. Right.
Al Letson: I just listened to Gabrieleen Silver Queen. Listening to that episode, the thing that struck me is it just felt like everybody in that town was in some form of prison. I don’t want to equate people who have freedom and can go and do whatever they want to do, with people who are behind bars and cannot. But the one correctional officer that you guys got to talk to, who was really open and honest with you, which in all the years I’ve been listening to Ear Hustle, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that type of interview, it was just really clear that he was so affected by his time working in the prison.
Earlonne Woods: Definitely. Now, it’s a trip. Most officers do not want to talk to us, either it’s by fear of what other officers may say about it. Every now and again, you will get one or two that’s like, “Man, what’s up? I’ll sit down and chop it up with you.” I think the guy we interviewed, he was a lieutenant, and he was very open. Like you say, he was at the end of his career, so he wasn’t tripping.
Speaker 12: We knew California Correctional Center was here when we grew up. We knew what they were doing. The town didn’t see the COs as being cocky or running the town or having that bad attitude. Then bring in High Desert. It’s a level four pen. Level four pen brings in a total different mentality, both on the staff side and the inmate side, way bigger violence.
Al Letson: As someone who was formerly incarcerated, when you hear this correctional officer talking about his experience, which is on the other side of what your experience was, what runs through your mind?
Earlonne Woods: Well, when you look at corrections… I know in that specific situation we was talking about the differences between a higher custody, a level four, which is a maximum security prison, which is the one, High Desert, next door, and then the one he was in, CCC, which is a lower security. It’s a whole different mentality.
Earlonne Woods: As I sat there and listened to him, I pretty much can understand. I can relate to him and what he’s talking about and what his concerns are. Personally, I’ve always thought in my head, “Why is there a level system set up anyway?” The level system pretty much makes you think you’ve got to act a certain way. You know what I’m saying?
Al Letson: Just for our listeners who aren’t familiar with that, when we say level system, there are prisons that are less-
Earlonne Woods: Maximum security, which would be the highest level; and then it’ll be a lower level which is not maximum security, but they’re still behind, probably, electric fences; and then there’s lower, where you can be in dorm living; and then there’s level ones, where you could be outside the prison or in fire camps and stuff.
Al Letson: The maximum security, not only does that have the title of having the strictest policies and all of that, but also there’s a fear that these people are more violent than, say, someone in a lower-security prison.
Earlonne Woods: Well, that’s the theory, but that’s not true. You could take a person that has three strikes, and their third strike might have been for, let’s say, stealing something out of the store. They have a life sentence attached to that three-strike sentence. It puts them in a position to go to a level four prison. You don’t necessarily have to be, as they say, the worst of the worst. Anybody can go to a level four prison.
Al Letson: Yeah. I want to rewind a little bit because a lot of this episode deals with a prosecutor and the decisions that he made. Across the country, we’re seeing several prosecutors take a more progressive track when they’re thinking about law and order. Have you been following those situations?
Earlonne Woods: Yes, closely too. There’s two of them. I follow Chesa Boudin, that’s in San Francisco, as well as George Gascon in Los Angeles.
Al Letson: Let’s talk about Mr. Boudin because he’s right across the bay from us. What are you seeing from his office and the challenges that he’s been facing?
Earlonne Woods: When I was watching it, I seen the race, everything, and it was a trip because people were blaming Chesa for things and he wasn’t even in office yet, hadn’t even won. You know what I’m saying? They start blaming him before he even took office.
Earlonne Woods: In certain counties, say, for instance, if he’s saying, “I’m not going to charge this man with three strikes because it don’t fit,” a lot of people may be all right, whatever. Then let’s say that person go and do something, drive drunk and do something crazy, then they blame Chesa, that he should have presupposed what was going to happen in this dude’s life. You know what I’m saying? Let’s lock him up before he do something in the future.
Earlonne Woods: You have prosecutors like that, that’s like, “No, listen, we’re going to deal with this person for the crime that he commits, not all these extra alternative sentences, these enhancements, all the rest of this stuff.” A person’s sentence may be, let’s say, two years, but they might be like, “Oh, well, he’s a gang member, so let’s give him 10 years for that. He had a gun. Let’s give him 100 years for that.” You know what I’m saying? I think you have a lot of these progressive prosecutors that’s like, “Listen, listen, listen, let’s cut out all these extra sentences and sentence individuals for the crimes they commit.”
Al Letson: Boudin is currently in the middle of a challenge. They’re trying to take him out of the office right now.
Earlonne Woods: Correct.
Al Letson: If that happens, do you think it sets back the idea of prosecutors thinking about the specific crime and not charging all sorts of other things?
Earlonne Woods: Well, I think they try to take the adversary, I guess, approach out of it and try to have some type of restorative justice outcome, not that we’re all enemies. No, let’s all learn from this. I think that’s their approach.
Al Letson: Yeah. I guess my question is, if restorative justice is what these two prosecutors, both in San Francisco and LA, major cities, if they get recalled or if they-
Earlonne Woods: Would the next prosecutor be like, “Oh, I’ve got to be hard in the paint”?
Al Letson: Exactly.
Earlonne Woods: “I’ve got to be crime and punishment.” A lot of this stuff is fueled by other prosecutors that’s been in the office longer, that have those mindsets, that don’t want to change their mindsets. A lot of it is fueled by law enforcement, by unions. So yeah, I think that if they recall him, the next person is going to be like, “Oh, I’m going to lock them all up.” To answer your question, yes.
Al Letson: That was Earlonne Woods, co-host of Ear Hustle. He and his co-host Nigel Poor have a new book out about the making of the podcast called This is Ear Hustle: Unflinching Stories of Everyday Prison Life. You should check it out.
Al Letson: Today’s show was in partnership with the podcast Motive from WBEZ Chicago. Shannon Heffernan was the lead reporter. Jesse Dukes produced the episode with Joe DeCeault and Marie Mendoza. Rob Wildeboer edited the show. Kevin Dawson is the executive producer of Motive. Additional reporting and production by Colin McNulty, Candace Mittel Kahn, and Arno Pedram. Original music by Cue Shop.
Al Letson: The new season of Motive is out now, and it is excellent. Be sure to check it out wherever you get your podcasts.
Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week was Amy “The Great” Mustafa, who’s also our production manager. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our engineers are the dynamic duo, J Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. Our post-production team this week is the Justice League, and it includes Jess Alvarenga, Steven Rascon, and Kathryn Styer Martínez. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala. Sumi Aggarwal is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.
Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.
Al Letson: Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
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Speaker 13: From PRX.