Richard Paey Speaks

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.

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.

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?

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 van 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?

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.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason.