HUDSON - Tomoka Correctional Institution was his fourth prison in nearly four years. But Richard Paey never considered himself "institutionalized."
Not until two weeks ago in the chow hall.
There was a roach in Paey's oatmeal. His fellow inmates just shrugged.
Gulp it down, they told him. And he did.
"They began saying, 'Just eat it, at least we know it's fresh,'" Paey said. "Afterward I began to think, I wasn't being funny ...
"It's like an apathy, like you don't care."
Disabled, suffering from failed surgeries and multiple sclerosis, Paey lives with chronic, intense pain. But it was prison, he said, that really took a toll on him.
That all changed in a whirlwind Thursday.
That morning, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Florida Cabinet stunned Paey and his family with a full pardon for his 2004 conviction and 25-year prison sentence for trafficking in his own painkilling drugs.
By evening, prison officials had delivered Paey back home. His 10-year battle against a criminal justice system his supporters say punishes chronic pain patients was finally, abruptly, over.
"Today is the day I restart my life," he said Thursday.
Actually, no. That day was Friday.
Paey woke up about 7 a.m. Friday to see his three teens off to school.
For once, the 48-year-old got to sleep late. Behind bars, wakeup is at 4:45 a.m.
It was a rough night. The bed was too soft, too comfortable.
"My bunk (in prison) was (a thin pad atop) a flat piece of steel attached to the wall," he said.
Then, his first real joy:
"I had a real cup of coffee, and it was great."
Calls from friends and supporters poured in. There were quiet moments, too, for him and his wife, Linda.
"We needed it," he said. "There's catching up to do."
Then the phone rang again.
It's the governor, his wife said.
Crist had heard what Paey had said on TV the night before about his treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system.
"He said I was very gracious," Paey said. "He said he didn't know if he could be under the same circumstances.
"He said it was a good day for Florida, a good day for a lot of people. ... He let me know that he was there to help me in anything he could help me with. He gave me his number.
"He told me to call him Charlie. I couldn't quite go that far.
"The sense I have is he's almost apologizing for what I went through."
First arrested in 1997, Paey was convicted on the third try under trafficking laws designed to stem the flow of illegal drugs - not prescribed painkillers.
Even the minimum mandatory sentence, 25 years, was meant for drug dealers, not pain patients. All agree the drugs were for Paey's own searing pain.
But the state said Paey obtained and possessed the drugs illegally, and turned down plea deals that would have spared him prison.
Paey said he did get the drugs legally, but the authorities got his doctor to recant the prescriptions. It was the state, he said, that took back offers of leniency.
Which brings us to what Paey said that so impressed the governor.
"I said America is a country where we're very active in our self-correction and self-criticism," Paey said. "People see that as a weakness, the infighting that we do, but it's actually a strength. It's one of the things that makesus great.
"People asked me ... was I bitter? That's not for this time. Now is the time to plan for the future and not mull over anything in the past."
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