Pubdate: Tue, 20 Nov 2007
Source: Reason Online (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 The Reason Foundation
Author: Radley Balko


An interview with the paraplegic man sentenced to 25 years in prison 
for treating his own pain.

In October of this year, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist signed a pardon 
for Richard Paey, a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis who had served 
nearly four years of a 25-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. 
Paey, who requires high-dose opioid therapy to treat pain brought on 
by his MS, a car accident, and a botched back surgery, was convicted 
of trafficking despite concessions from prosecutors that there was no 
evidence the painkillers in his possession were for anything other 
than his own use. When police came to arrest the wheel-chair bound 
Paey, they came with a full-on SWAT team, battering down the door and 
rushing into the home of the wheelchair-bound Paey, his optometrist 
wife, and their two schoolage children.

Prosecutors offered Paey a plea bargain, but he refused, insisting 
that he'd done nothing wrong, and that he shouldn't have to plead 
guilty to a felony for treating his own pain. Paey was tried, 
convicted, and given a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence. While in 
prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that 
administered painkillers to Paey at rates higher than what the state 
convicted him of for possessing in the first place.

Christ and Florida's pardon board issued Paey's pardon after heavy 
media coverage of his case, including by 60 Minutes, and the New York 
Times, as well as by reason's own Jacob Sullum and Radley Balko.

On November 13, reason senior editor Radley Balko interviewed Paey 
from his Florida home by phone.

reason: How is life since you've been released?

Richard Paey: It's dreamlike. I have to catch myself now and then. 
Particularly when I wake up in the morning. I have to reorient where 
I am now with where I've been for almost four years. There are times 
when I'm not sure if I'm awake or still dreaming. In prison, you 
survive by developing routines. You stop thinking. The routine 
becomes your life. You follow set behaviors. I still engage in that 
when I wake up. It's a different reality.

I didn't do very well in prison. Fortunately, one of the prison 
doctors was very kind to me. He said he saw in me what he called "the 
consciousness of innocence." It's very dangerous. He said if you 
bring it into prison with you, you will have the most horrifying 
experience that a human being can possibly have. You won't survive. 
You have to acclimate and accept your situation and not resist. You 
can't keep holding on to your innocence. You have to let go of it and 
start acclimating.

But I wasn't doing that. Apparently, he'd see this "consciousness of 
innocence" every now and then in a prison patient--people who clung 
to the idea that they were innocent, and might eventually get out. He 
said it will do more damage to you than any disease.

reason: How were you treated by other inmates?

Paey: Very well, actually. That was one surprise. I'd almost call it 
a shock. People I would never have associated with--people I'd have 
been afraid of if I'd seen them in a free-world environment on the 
street, people with tattoos, crazy hair, and so on--as I got to know 
them, and was accepted as one of them, they treated me very well. I 
never had the fear of violence form any of the other inmates. In 
fact, something else happened. It was the opposite. I found I had 
more fear of some of the officers who worked in the system and 
engaged in behaviors that we'd like to think don't go on in the prison system.

There was an old Cuban man I met when I was transferred to the 
facility in Lake Butler. When I arrived there, he was the first 
person I met. He told me the difference between the American prison 
system and the prison system in Cuba: He said that in Cuba they hit 
you, but they hit you in front of everybody. He said in America, they 
beat you behind the building, or in a private room where no on is 
looking. He'd been in both, and he said that was the difference.

reason: Were you ever beaten?

Paey: I was frequently verbally abused. The older inmates tell me the 
outright physical abuse has tapered down. As far as physical abuse, 
there was one time I was hit by an officer. I had been shipped out 
from Zephyr Hills to Butler after my interview with John Tierney [of 
the New York Times]. When I got there, they put me in solitary 
confinement. When I kept collapsing, they had a medical doctor 
examine me, and he had them move me out of solitary and into a hospital.

So I was sleeping in my bed at around one o'clock in the morning. The 
lights were on--the lights are always on--and the shift officers were 
conducting their "shake down"--which means they come in and go 
through all of your belongings to search for contraband. It seemed to 
come out of nowhere, he had a radio in his hand, and he swung it down 
as hard as he could and he hit my legs with it. If I could have 
gotten out of bed and hit him, I would have. He said to me, "I just 
wanted to see if you had feeling in your legs." He saw the wheelchair 
next to my bed, and that the sheet was covering my legs.

I was so furious. I refused to give him my name. I didn't say a word. 
I was afraid if I spoke, I'd say something that would get him 
angrier. When he realized he wasn't going to get a word out of me, he 
asked if I could talk. I didn't answer. He said he was going to check 
to see if I could talk, and if he found out I could, he was going to 
send me back to confinement. The next day, I was transferred out of 
the hospital, and didn't see that officer again.

But there are other kinds of abuse that you wouldn't think about. 
There were only a handful of officers that were bad, but those few 
can really do a lot of harm. The kind of thing that goes on today is 
less noticeable, but it's damaging. Things like leaving the lights on 
24 hours a day. I went more than 30 days in solitary where the lights 
were on the entire time. It was this callous indifference of a 
particular officer. And other things, like slamming the doors when 
they do security checks. They come by every hour and give your door a 
loud kick. When you're inside a cell and someone comes by and gives 
that big iron door a kick once an hour, the sound just ricochets 
between your ears. So systematic sleep deprivation is common. I would 
see men go into solitary and when they came out weeks later, their 
hair would be completely gray.

This kind of thing was typical from the officers who weren't happy 
with their work, or were looking to inflict additional punishment on 
inmates. Some of thought prison wasn't enough for us, that part of 
their job responsibility was to inflict additional punishment on us.

reason: You mention getting transferred to Butler Lake, the 
maximum-security prison across the state, several hours further away 
from your family. That transfer happened shortly after your interview 
with John Tierney of the New York Times. Do you think the transfer 
was retaliation--punishment for talking to a journalist?

Paey: That's what I was told. That's what a friendly prison nurse 
told my wife after the interview. And just after the interview, one 
of the prison officers who was on good terms with me told me that the 
guard who sat in on my interview with Tierney had gone to his captain 
about writing me a disciplinary report--which is the first step 
toward sending someone to solitary. He said I had said thing in the 
interview that I shouldn't have said, and that they were going to act 
on it. There are designated "transfer days" when they move inmates 
between facilities. About two weeks later, on a day not scheduled to 
be a transfer day, the sergeant came up to me at around midnight and 
told me to pack my things. I was being shipped out to Lake Butler. 
They had no explanation. I couldn't decline the move. It wasn't 
medical in nature.

The move was tough. The sun was up by the time they moved me. It was 
of those insufferable July days. The fan they transfer you in has no 
air conditioning, and only the driver's window opens, and only about 
an inch. So I'm dying in the back of the van, strapped down in my 
wheelchair in this suffocating heat, where you can't move, and 
there's no air circulating. I ended up falling over, and they had to 
drive back and do it all over. They ended up taking me an ambulance a 
few days later.

reason: You say you were put in solitary confinement at Lake Butler. 
Was that for your health--to keep you from other inmates? Or was that 
punishment, too?

Paey: Laughs. When I got up to Lake Butler, they didn't know why I 
was there. They had no paperwork on my transfer. This is going to 
sound absurd. Even now I find it difficult to believe. But when my 
wife Linda began calling the Department of Corrections about my 
transfer, they told her that a particular doctor had ordered my 
transfer. Linda called this doctor, got her on the phone. The doctor 
looked at my transfer order and said, "I didn't sign that. I don't 
know who signed that. Somebody used my signature stamp to sign that. 
I had no part in this transfer."

Now, what's going on, here? I'm being moved out of my permanent camp, 
which is close to my home and family, I'm being moved to the Siberia 
of the Florida corrections system, and they put me in solitary 
confinement once I got there. And nobody knows who authorized it? And 
the doctor the paperwork says ordered it says she never ordered it? 
So where do you go from there? What do you do?

reason: And to be clear, this was punitive solitary confinement. You 
weren't isolated in a medical ward.

Paey: This place looked like a bomb shelter. Solid cement walls, no 
windows. You get in through a small hatch. I was pushed inside, and 
that became my home until Linda's calls persuaded the doctor to come 
and see me in August. One of the doctors told me the heat index in 
there was 105. There's no air conditioning. I'm in a cell where 
there's no air movement. To survive, you strip down to your boxers. 
You use sink water to soak rags and put them on the back of your 
neck. They feed you through a slot in the door. There are no bars, 
like in the movies. It's all solid, cement walls and doors. That's 
where I stayed for two weeks until I started passing out. After that, 
they moved me to the hospital.

reason: How is your health now?

Paey: I think I'm doing well, considering.

reason: Are you getting the medication you need?

Paey: Well, at some point we're going to have a cash crisis. When I 
got out of prison, I went down to Social Security, and they said 
they'd never seen a pardon before. Before I went to prison, I was 
getting Social Security disability, and was on Medicare A and B. 
Well, when you get convicted of a felony and go to prison, you lose 
all of those benefits. They're not really sure how to handle it--if 
the pardon makes me eligible again or not. They're now telling us 
that it may not be until next June until they know. That was terrible news.

reason: Aside from actually being able to pay for the 
medication--which of course is a significant problem--if you can find 
a way to pay, you'll be able to get painkiller you need, and at the 
doses you need them?

Paey: Yes. I was told I'd be able to get the medication if I can pay for it.

reason: Is that true of everyone in Florida, or do you think you're 
getting special access because of the high-profile nature of your case?

Paey: I'm being given access because I'm a high profile case.

reason: So still today, a chronic pain patient not named Richard Paey 
would have the same problems you did obtaining these drugs at the 
doses they need, and might face the same sort of prosecution if they 
tried to get them?

Paey: That's right.

reason: Governor Crist and Florida Attorney General McCullom both not 
only voted for your pardon, they both expressed regret that perhaps 
mandatory minimums and zero tolerance drug laws had gone too 
far--pretty notable statements coming from two stalwart advocates of 
the drug war. Are you aware of any efforts by them or the Florida 
legislature to reform these laws?

Paey: I don't know if those two in particular are doing anything. I 
know that advocates here in Florida including people from Families 
Against Mandatory Minimums and the November Coalition are pushing 
legislation to deal with the problem. One bill would I think would 
remove prescribed opiates from the drug trafficking statutes. I 
believe the November Coalition wants to use my case as a platform to 
go after mandatory minimums both in Florida and in other states--to 
point to my case as an example of the absurd results that can come 
from these laws. I'm not aware of anything the governor or anyone in 
Tallahassee in particular are doing to remedy the problem that 
brought my case to their attention.

reason: Many people have compared your case to that of Rush Limbaugh. 
Some have said Limbaugh was let off because of his political 
affiliation. But reason's Jacob Sullum has suggested Limbaugh was let 
off because he played the drug warrior's game--he admitted he was an 
"addict," and took his punishment. But you refused to say you were an 
addict, or concede that you'd done anything wrong. You insisted you 
needed painkillers to live a normal life. Sullum believes that's why 
Limbaugh got a slap on the wrist, while you got 25 years.

Paey: I think Sullum's take is pretty accurate. Mr. Limbaugh chose to 
label himself an addict. What I didn't understand when I went to 
trial is that there is a tremendous fear of addiction in this 
country. The prosecutor in my case didn't see me as a patient, 
despite incontrovertible evidence that I was indeed a patient with a 
long history of medical records showing that I needed this 
medication. In the prosecutor's mind, this was simply too much 
medication for one patient. He didn't want to hear about tolerance or 
high-dose therapy. The fact that I had taken the medication for more 
than a few years made me an addict in his mind. That became the 
prosecution's theme--that I was an "addict." He repeated the term 
"drug addict" eight times in his closing argument. He didn't call me 
a "chronic pain patient." Even though he was forced to recognize 
during the trial that I had legitimate medical problem, and had a 
legitimate medical history, I was still an "addict."

This is a serious problem we have in this country--this fear of 
addiction, and how we perceive the use of prescription drugs. There 
are lots of myths and misconceptions out there.

Whoever was counseling Rush Limbaugh gave him good advice. Admitting 
he was an addict played to his favor. I was convicted because the 
prosecutor hammered away at the jury that I was an addict and that my 
doctor was a pusher. I was sort of blindsided when the prosecutor 
started to make that argument--that I was nothing more than an 
addict. I can't think of a worse slur to attach to a person.

reason: And once you were in prison, the state of Florida then 
administered an opioid painkiller to you at doses higher than those 
for which the same state had just labeled you an addict and convicted you.

Paey: Right. It became a comedy of bureaucracies. One agency 
prosecutes me for taking too much medication. And that was their 
explanation--that my dose was too high for one person to be taking, 
therefore I must be selling it. Even though they conceded they had no 
evidence of that. Then I get to prison, and the doctors examine my 
records and my medical history, and they decide that as doctors, they 
have to give me this medication, and in fact it was in higher doses 
than what I'd been getting before.

It certainly was an irony that I was prosecuted for taking too much 
medication, then the state went ahead and gave me more once I was in 
prison. And I think that irony made many people take a second look at 
my situation. It raised a red flag in many peoples' minds that 
something strange was going on, here.

reason: What was the first thing you did after you were released?

Paey: It occurred so fast, and it was so unexpected. I think Linda 
and I both thought it would take weeks. And after the pardon, they 
rushed me out of the prison. The first thing I did was grab my kids 
and hug them. Knowing that I'm here, at home, was beyond anyone's 
wildest dreams. We're still in a kind of euphoria. I have to keep 
reminding my family that I'm here, and they have to remind me that 
I'm not in prison anymore. We still have a hard time believing this 
is happening--that this isn't imagination. I'm just thrilled to be 
home with my family.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake