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.
Crist 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 one 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.