Richard Paey, a paraplegic with multiple sclerosis, served three years of a 25-year prison sentence before Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, pardoned him. Paey requires high-dose opiate therapy to treat pain brought on by his M.S., a car accident, and botched back surgery. He was accused of forging prescriptions to acquire the medicine he needs—a charge he denies—and was convicted not just of the forgeries but of drug trafficking, even though prosecutors conceded there was no evidence he possessed painkillers for anything other than his own use.
His case drew notice from The New York Times, 60 Minutes, and hundreds of other news organizations. Times columnist John Tierney argued that Paey's case was "merely the most outrageous example" of a drug war policy that leaves "millions of patients" without "enough medicine for their pain."
Senior Editor Radley Balko spoke with Paey in November, six weeks after his release.
Q: How has life been since you were released?
A: Dreamlike. In prison you survive by developing a routine that becomes your life. I'm still in that routine. So it's sometimes still difficult to believe that I'm home.
Q: How were you treated by other inmates?
A: Very well. That was a surprise. People I never would have associated with—people I would have been afraid of on the street—treated me very well. I had more fear from some of the officers who worked in the prison system. I met one older man who had been a prisoner in America and in Cuba. He said in Cuban prisons they hit you in front of everyone; in American prisons they take you into a private room to beat you.
Q: Were you ever beaten?
A: It was mostly verbal and psychological abuse. But I was hit once. I was in the hospital after I had gotten ill in solitary confinement. I was sleeping when an officer came into the room and swung his radio down and hit me on my legs. He had seen my wheelchair and said he was just checking to see if I had any feeling in my legs.
Q: After you spoke with John Tierney of The New York Times, you were transferred to a maximum security prison across the state, further away from your family. They also put you in solitary confinement. Do you believe this was retaliation for telling Tierney your story?
A: That's what I was told. A friendly guard told me that the guard who sat in on my interview with Tierney immediately went to his captain to write up a disciplinary report, which is the first step toward sending someone to solitary. About two weeks later, they told me I was being shipped out at midnight to the higher-security prison at Lake Butler. When my wife Linda began calling about the transfer, they told her a doctor had ordered the transfer for my health. When Linda got that doctor on the phone, she said she'd never seen the transfer order and had never signed it, and that someone had used her signature stamp to sign it.
Q: While you were in prison, the state of Florida paid for a morphine pump that administered higher doses of painkiller than what you were prosecuted for possessing. Now that you're out, are you getting the medication you need to treat your pain?
A: The Medicare and Social Security people say they've never dealt with a pardon before. When I was convicted, I lost my benefits. So there seems to be some confusion now about whether or not I'm eligible. But if I can find a way to pay for it, the state won't prevent me from getting my medication.
Q: Is it easier to treat chronic pain in Florida now, or do you think you're getting special treatment because you're high profile?
A: It's because I'm high profile. Someone in the same position I was in five years ago would still risk getting arrested, just as I was.