KING OF PAIN
How Richard Paey's Pain Landed Him in Jail, Made Him Famous -- And Set Him Free
At about 5 in the morning on Friday, Sept. 21, Richard Paey awoke foggy from a long night of deep sleep and instinctively reached for his locker to grab his glasses. Instead, he felt -- what, a lamp? The wood of a bedside table? He noticed his bed. Soft. His wife Linda lay next to him. It was true.
The day before, he had been a prisoner, confined to a stark cell in Tomoka Correctional Institute near Daytona Beach, more than three years into a 25-year sentence for drug trafficking.
And now he was a free man.
On his first morning at home in Hudson, that fact took a few blurry seconds to sink in. "In prison, I had dreams where I'd be sitting at home with my wife, touching her leg, and then I'd wake up and find I was still in prison," Paey says. "It's the worst thing you can imagine. I slowly woke up that day, and the reality came to me that I was home, that it wasn't a dream."
Creative Loafing first told the story of Paey's arrest and incarceration in June 2004. Since then, he has become the country's most high-profile chronic pain patient -- a cause celebre for foes of America's war on drugs and its draconian mandatory-minimum prison sentences.
But the full story of what happened to him inside, what led to his release, and what his life is like in the aftermath has not been told until now -- a saga of injustice and survival in which the war on drugs runs smack up against the war on pain.
Richard Paey began his battle with pain in 1985, after a severe car accident in Philadelphia. Two failed back surgeries later, he faced a life of intense, unremitting agony. He tried every imaginable treatment option, but opiate pain medications -- stuff like Percocet and Vicodin -- were all that helped.
A sympathetic doctor in New Jersey provided him with the necessary doses -- very big ones. But Paey, 49, is no junkie. He swears he's never gotten a buzz from pain pills, just a little drowsy when he first started taking them. Pain specialists back him up: The science, they say, is inexact, but essentially the pain soaks up the opiates, leaving nothing for the pleasure centers.
Richard and Linda, who met at Rutgers University, moved with their three young children to Hudson in 1994. Richard had trouble finding a doctor to treat him.
The War on Drugs -- a term coined by President Richard Nixon in 1971 to introduce a new set of initiatives strengthening drug prohibition - -- had turned a harsh light on prescription pain meds. A few bad doctors were using their practices as pill mills, getting busted and making headlines. Legit doctors felt the chill and became cautious about writing large doses. It's a problem that continues to this day.
The New Jersey doctor agreed to mail Paey prescriptions of Percocet, Lortab and Valium. In 1995, a host of prescription painkillers was folded into Florida's drug trafficking laws. A year later, Paey popped onto the radar of a Pasco County detective who was monitoring pharmacies for large pain-pill prescriptions. He contacted the Tampa office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which sent an agent to visit Paey's doctor in New Jersey. When the drug cop suggested he might be under investigation, the doctor caved, said he never wrote scripts after a certain date.
That opened the door to hit Paey with prescription fraud and -- preposterously enough -- drug trafficking. Pasco Sheriff deputies surveilled Paey for weeks and never saw him sell a single pill. That didn't matter. If they could catch him with a large enough quantity of painkillers, obtained with what they contended were forged prescriptions, they could hang a trafficking charge on him. So they did. A heavily armed team burst into the Paey home in March 1997 and arrested him.
Right around this time, Paey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Within a few months, he would be consigned to a wheelchair.
It took three trials and seven years to finally put Paey in jail, convicted of multiple counts of drug trafficking, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud and possession of a controlled substance. The judge had no choice but to mete out 25 years.
Prosecutors have said they offered Paey several lesser sentences, including house arrest. Paey counters that the state undercut the early plea bargains and over time the proposed sentences became unacceptably long. He knew he was in the right. He went to trial. He lost.
During his prison stay, Paey was articulate, noble and resolute in defending his innocence and the injustice of his sentence. Linda worked the talk shows, did interviews and gave speeches, even though she loathed every minute of it. 60 Minutes did a feature on Richard. The New York Times took up his cause. Myriad other media outlets jumped on board as well.
"Richard is our Mandela," says Siobhan Reynolds, head of the Pain Relief Network, an activist group. She, along with Linda Paey, spearheaded the media campaign that helped free Richard Paey and shed more light on the problem of chronic pain. "He went to jail for a principal when he could've taken a deal. It was entirely nonviolent resistance. He knew the government was wrong."
At 4 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20, Linda Paey sat in the bathroom of a Tallahassee hotel room preparing what she was going to say to Gov. Charlie Crist and the clemency board, which had agreed to hear Richard Paey's request for commutation of his sentence. Her three children -- Catherine, 17, Elizabeth, 16 and Benjamin, 15 -- along with close family friend, 20-year old Alexis Muckle -- were dozing in the two-room suite.
Linda had remained stalwart throughout the decade-long ordeal -- Richard calls her his "hero" -- never wavering in her commitment to free her husband. An optometrist, she supported the family alone ( minus Richard's Social Security disability checks, which were suspended when he went to jail ). Linda didn't cry much, consciously maintained a sunny demeanor. She avoided movies and music, anything that might soften her up, that might divert her from the prize.
Linda, working on a couple hours sleep, woke up the kids around 7. Catherine and Alexis forgot some clothes and makeup, so Linda lent them some of hers. Funny, she thought: Even on the day that would likely determine her husband's fate for the next 20-plus years, she still had to troubleshoot the little stuff.
On the way to the clemency hearing, Linda went over the game plan with the family: Know what you're going to say; Elizabeth, now's not the time to hide behind that protective smile -- let your emotions go. "We all knew Rich's life was hanging in the balance with this meeting," Linda recounts, "that this would determine whether he comes home or not. This is it. This is the deal."
The Paey family entered the crowded Florida Cabinet meeting room around 8:30 a.m. Their attorney, John Flannery II, strolled in right at the 9 a.m. start time, looking dapper and cool.
The Paey case was first on the docket. The night before, Flannery had instructed the clan to follow him up to the lectern and form a semicircle behind him as he spoke to Gov. Crist and the Cabinet. "That way they'd have to let us all speak," Linda says. Gov. Crist allowed Flannery's presentation to stretch well past his allotted time. The lawyer argued that Paey's punishment was cruel and unusual, but he also maintained that prosecuting him was wrong from the start. He offered no admission of guilt or expressions of contrition that usually accompany clemency requests. Everyone in the family had their say. Elizabeth ditched the smile and cried. So did Catherine, but tears come naturally to her. The entire Paey presentation lasted about 40 minutes.
On the morning of his clemency hearing, Richard was in Tomoka "steeling myself to what I expected would be the outcome. They would say, 'What a tragedy, but the jury verdict stands.'"
Paey had made the mistake of being optimistic before. He strongly felt that his appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeals would be granted, but in December it was denied in a 2-1 vote. The appellate judges were not without sympathy. "Mr. Paey's argument about his sentences does not fall on deaf ears, but it falls on the wrong ears," wrote Judge Douglas Wallace. The court suggested the clemency route.
Richard, Linda and Flannery struggled over whether to request a full pardon or have his sentence commuted to time served. They finally decided that a pardon might be setting the bar too high. Inmates usually have to serve a third of their sentence before becoming eligible for clemency, but, in an August hearing, Flannery convinced the Florida Parole Board to fast-track Richard's case. The Paey camp celebrated that major victory. Then a big setback: About a week before the clemency hearing, a parole board investigator recommended to deny Paey's request for commutation.
Then there was Crist himself. Richard found the governor tough to read. "He had a reputation in the [prison] institution as being hard on inmate issues," Paey says. "He was Chain Gang Charlie. 'Charlie Crist ain't gonna pardon an inmate on his death bed.' But then we'd hear things in the media that suggested he knew about my case, and he said things like, 'We need to protect the innocent as well as punish the guilty.'"
Bottom line: Richard Paey didn't really know what to expect from the clemency board on Sept. 20, but he damn sure wasn't about to get his hopes up.
Gov. Crist didn't miss a beat after Catherine Paey finished her tearful testimonial. He instantly called for a full pardon, going beyond clemency and Paey's request for commutation.
"They call it justice," the governor said. "That's what we're doing here today. We aim to right a wrong and exercise compassion and to do it with grace."
And then Crist issued the kicker: "I state he should be released today."
Linda stood there, stunned. "My mouth was wide open," she recalls. "So was John's. We were all holding on to each other in absolutely total shock. I was like, 'Can he do this?'"
The Cabinet members then all voted in lockstep with Crist, which set in motion a whirlwind of events.
Linda piled the kids into the van and headed toward Daytona to pick up her husband. But prison officials soon decided they would transport Richard home and contacted Linda just in time to save her the trip. She headed south to their home in Hudson. Her cellphone rang and rang as she drove. "Uh, Mom," one of the kids said from the back seat, "now's not the time to get in a car accident."
Meanwhile, at Tomoka, most staffers had never dealt with a pardon, so they didn't know exactly how to proceed. They were also faced with the task of getting Richard Paey out of jail that very day.
Around 11 a.m., a guard came to Paey's cell and told him he had to go to the chow hall. Instead, he diverted Paey to an administrative area, where he sat for a half hour in front of an intake office, which processes people into prison. Finally, an official arrived and messed with his computer for a while before informing Paey that he'd been pardoned. "I guess they felt they could engage in this little bit of black humor," Paey says ruefully.
"He began to read it to me, and I began to cry," he says. "Ten years of pent-up anxiety. I was emotionally wrung out. I cried and cried. I think I cried literally until I didn't have any tears left."
Prison bigwigs didn't think it advisable for Paey to return to his cellblock. He might be in danger from jealous inmates who heard of his pardon, they said. Paey would have none of it. "One of them said, 'It's a snake pit down there," he recalls. "And I said, 'Half an hour ago I was one of the snakes.' I had friends I needed to say goodbye to."
A guard pushed Paey in his wheelchair back to the cellblock. He got backslaps and handshakes from his former fellow inmates and gave away some of the stuff from his locker: radio headphones, toiletries, a cheap Casio watch with a 10-year battery.
Prison staffers scurried around hunting up clothes so Paey would look presentable once outside. Instead of the usual khaki pants and shirt and Oriental-style slip-ons called bobos, he wheeled out of the institution in jeans, a golf shirt and black sneakers with Velcro straps.
Outside, a gaggle of media had gathered. Prison brass asked Paey if they could spirit him quietly away in a car, but he would have none of that, either. He answered reporters' questions. Told them "there's not a country in the world where self-criticism and self-correction is more active than in the United States. Other countries see that as a weakness, but it's our strength. It's the process that brought us to this day."
Someone asked if he was bitter. Not bitter, he said; now was the time to think about the future and not the past.
About a month after his release, Richard Paey is more than willing to talk about the past, about his time locked up, about his travails with the legal system, about his ongoing battle with pain. He does not, however, come across as bitter. "If you asked me three years ago, I would've said differently," he reveals. "But I got probably a thousand letters in prison, and I realized I wasn't alone. Over time, the anger and bitterness dissipated."
Paey answers the door to his comfortable home in a subdivision marked by spacious yards. Linda is upstairs getting ready. They have their first appointment with pain specialist Dr. David Columbus within the hour. He's the one who implanted Richard's morphine pump, which he first received soon after his arrest. Ironically, it turned out to be his most effective pain treatment: an internal device that administers measured doses of medication.
From his wheelchair, Paey greets me with a smile. He looks good. His skin has regained some color from the grayish hue he acquired in prison. His deep brown eyes are sharp and intense. But make no mistake: Paey is suffering. After more than two decades of living in abject pain, he has become adept at hiding it, or at least functioning in spite of it. Today, the tops of his legs feel like they're on fire. "I couldn't roll from my bed into my wheelchair this morning," he says. "A few days ago, I didn't think I'd be able to make it to [today's appointment] without an emergency-room admission."
This is the first time Paey and I have spoken since late spring of 2004, when I hollered questions through thick glass at the Pasco County Jail, where he was awaiting his first prison assignment.
At the time, Richard and Linda were terrified by the notion that the Florida Department of Corrections might not refill his morphine pump. A few weeks after our jailhouse interview, Paey was assigned to Zephyrhills Correctional Institution, 45 miles from the Paey home. The FDOC did arrange for Paey to get his pump refilled by a doctor in Tampa. For 14 months at Zephyrhills, Paey was housed in the infirmary. In all, it was about as good an incarceration scenario as the Paeys could've hoped for.
But it didn't last. Not long after New York Times columnist John Tierney visited Paey in prison and wrote a piece outlining his plight, he was unceremoniously transferred. In July of 2005, guards loaded him into the back of an un-air-conditioned van to ship him to what he calls "the Siberia of the Florida penal system:" Lake Butler Correctional. Paey's blood pressure skyrocketed; he passed out. They rushed him back to Zephyrhills and packed him in ice. Two days later, he was taken to Lake Butler in an ambulance.
The Paeys were never told exactly why Richard was transferred to Butler, an FDOC medical hub, and then to Tomoka. One version said it was for his own protection, but a few prison medical staffers told them it was payback for the New York Times column.
Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said that Paey was moved "because at the time we had four inmates in the system with morphine pumps spread in different facilities. It was easier to manage their care if they were in the same one. They all ended up at Tomoka."
Upon his arrival at Lake Butler Correctional, Paey was thrown into solitary confinement. In an even-toned voice, Paey describes the worst phase of his time in stir: "It will make you psychotic. It's like an old '50s bomb shelter with solid cement walls and steel doors. You can hear screams up and down the tiers of cells. The impression is you're entering hell.
"They leave the lights on sometimes 24 hours. I was in a disciplinary cell, treated the same way as if I had attacked a guard. You can have no personal items, no phone calls. They slip you your food through a flap, which is generally how you know the time of day. There's no air-conditioning. The only air comes through a little vent. It was extremely hot. The heat index got to over 105. ...
"An iron platform comes out of the wall, where you can put your bedroll, which is about an inch thick. I had sheets but no pillow. I used my [wheelchair] seat cushion as a pillow. I generally slept sitting in my chair, which was actually more comfortable. I started looking for mental exercises, down to counting squares, trying to remember things from long ago. I did get some paper and a little rubber pen -- they call it a security pen."
( Paey wrote me a passionate, rambling letter during that time. As an excerpt shows -- see p. 19 -- the paper was stained with Paey's sweat. )
Two weeks. That's how long they kept Richard Paey in solitary. He never found out why he was put there. ( Plessinger of the DOC said that he was put in confinement for his own safety because of his medicine pump: "The fear was that some inmates would want the morphine and do whatever they could to get it. Lake Butler did not have a protective custody unit." )
Twice a week, after being handcuffed, Paey wheeled himself to a shower -- the handicap set-up was little more than a hose. He spent another week in a Lake Butler medical unit, where, he says, a guard swung a radio and hit him in the legs "to see if I had feeling down there." Guards called him "cripple," and worse. Paey was then transferred to Tomoka, where he was housed in the Protective Management ( PM ) unit along with some of the state's more notorious inmates: White supremacist and convicted murderer George Loeb was there, as were child molesters, transsexuals, male prostitutes -- anyone prison officials felt might be a target or a disruption amid the general population.
Why Richard Paey was among them he does not know. Although his case had achieved a certain profile outside the prison walls, he couldn't imagine it would put him in harm's way. While not nearly as horrible as Lake Butler, life in the Tomoka PM unit certainly constituted hard time. It had a higher guard-to-inmate ratio, and tighter security restrictions. Paey lived in a small cell "not much larger than most people's bathrooms." Unless the unit was under lockdown, he was allowed out into the hallway of the L-shaped unit. He could also wheel down to the day room -- which included one 19-inch television with six channels -- that could hold about 40 of the wing's 65 inmates. PM prisoners were allowed a minimum of three hours a week in a small outdoor yard separate from the other inmates. Sometimes, if the right guard crew was in the right mood, they'd give the prisoners more recreation time.
Paey befriended several of the inmates on the PM ward. Most important: No one messed with him. "I was very neutral, wasn't a threat to anyone," he says. "I didn't have an advantage over anyone. Particularly after the 60 Minutes story, word got around that I'd been treated wrongly by the courts, been shafted. Most of them in there realized that they were doing their time for the crime, but there was a certain recognition that I didn't belong there."
One thing Paey did not have to worry about in jail was his pain medication. Every 10 weeks, a doctor in Jacksonville refilled his morphine pump. But that care came with a price. He made the four-hour trip in the back of an old van, shackled to his wheelchair, his ankles chained, his hands cuffed ( covered by a "black box" that rendered the cuffs tamper-proof but prevented him from moving his hands at all ). "I would just sit there, hunched over," Paey says, "with 25 pounds of chains on me."
This time, a little anger creeps into his voice.
Dr. Columbus' waiting room is a tableau of physical agony. People with limps, canes, walkers and wheelchairs. Faces etched in grimaces. Quiet, desperate sighs.
In her usual cheery manner, Linda approaches the receptionist, who informs her that the office visit will cost $450. She hands over a credit card and returns to her seat -- a little less ebullient.
Richard is uninsured.
He may be out of prison, but he's tied up in a bureaucratic straightjacket: Once the Paeys were confident that the state would continue refilling Richard's morphine pump, they dropped him from Linda's Blue Cross/Blue Shield insurance plan because they couldn't afford it. Now he must wait for a new enrollment period in December. Fireman's Fund, the company that covered most of his medical bills ( including the installation of the pump ) in the wake of the auto accident, deactivated his case because, while in prison, Richard made no claims. Company personnel have told the Paeys that they're searching the archives for his file. The local Social Security office has promised that Richard's $1,200 monthly disability benefit will soon be restored. His health benefits, however, will take much longer to go into effect, as late as June.
So the Paeys keep using plastic, ringing up more than $2,000 thus far.
The financial burden Richard's case has perpetrated on the family is nigh incalculable. Asked if they can place a rough amount on the money spent, mostly on legal bills, Paey says, "We're afraid to. We don't ever expect to recover. There are mortgages on top of mortgages. The kid's college funds have been eaten up, all our retirement accounts and savings emptied."
During Richard's incarceration, Linda worked two jobs, often seven days a week. When she wasn't in her regular practice at the Pasco Eye Institute, she moonlighted at eyeglass stores in the mall.
Freeing Richard -- even though it was a long shot -- remained the family's top priority. "At one point, I talked to the kids and said, 'We're not going to have any money for retirement -- can you support us when we get older?" she recounts. "They knew I wasn't joking. They said, 'Of course.'"
All this fiscal devastation leads perhaps to an inevitable question: Do the Paeys plan on seeking restitution from the state? "We decided right away that we would not be doing that," Paey says. "What [the clemency board] did was extraordinary enough. It would look like sour grapes. It would diminish the significance of our cause."
Postscript: In late October, Dr. Columbus refilled Richard's pump with a new medication, Hydromorphone ( also known as Dilaudid ). Paey said that his pain had significantly decreased.
2007 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.