HUDSON - Last year, Richard Paey ate a cold Thanksgiving dinner at Tomoka Correctional Institution with his cellmate, a convicted murderer who had killed a previous cellmate.
Paey was surrounded by better food and friendlier faces Thursday.
Two months after his 25-year sentence for drug trafficking was overturned, Paey spent the holiday with wife Linda, daughters Catherine and Elizabeth, both 17, son Benjamin, 15, and his mother, Helen.
"To be home now means so much," Paey said. "I don't want to even leave for a night. In prison, the phone system doesn't really encourage family unity. A 15-minute call was $5. We'd get these huge phone bills. The phone got turned off several times. That's a frightening thing to happen."
Through it all, he said, "The kids suffered the most."
Paey, 49, was seriously injured in a 1985 traffic crash, and a subsequent back surgery was botched. A chronic pain sufferer, the New Jersey native also has battled multiple sclerosis for almost a decade.
In 1997, he was arrested by Pasco County sheriff's deputies after a three-month investigation of seemingly unusual prescription fulfillment.
In a 2004 trial, Paey's attorney argued that the painkillers were obtained legally and used solely by Paey, but a jury convicted him on seven counts.
Although there was no evidence that Paey sold drugs, the volume of pills involved in the formal charges, 700 tablets of the painkiller Percocet, triggered the mandatory sentence for trafficking.
Since her husband went to prison, Linda Paey, an optometrist, worked tirelessly to publicize his case, only to find disappointment at every legal turn.
That changed suddenly in September, when Gov. Charlie Crist and the state Cabinet, sitting as the Board of Executive Clemency, unanimously voted to grant Paey a full pardon.
He has been reconnecting with family ever since. This week, he saw daughter Catherine perform with the Hudson High School band for the first time.
"My kids have grown up since I've been away," he said. "They were just becoming teenagers" when he went to prison. "It's affected their lives," he said, "but we decided early on to stick together."
On Thursday, Paey offered a prayer before the family's traditional Thanksgiving meal. "I'd like to say a prayer thanking God and Gov. Crist for bringing me back to my family."
It was the first holiday the family celebrated since he went to prison.
"Last Thanksgiving, I think Richard's mom came over and we just had some ham," Linda Paey said. "For three and a half years, they didn't want to celebrate anything. Even Christmas was low-key. They didn't want to go anywhere special or do anything special, or have a big celebration without Dad.
"Now, we're picking it back up. They're psyched for Christmas. Plus, Catherine is graduating this year. Before, if you even mentioned graduation, she would cry because she didn't think Richard would be there."
Besides bonding with his family, Paey is fighting for the rights of other pain sufferers through the November Coalition, a nonprofit group that works "to end drug war injustice," and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a national lobbying organization that works to reform mandatory sentencing laws.
Fortunately, Paey said, he didn't have to do any fighting in prison. Most of the guards and inmates treated him with respect.
Instead, he struggled to keep his mind active.
"Inmates have to behave in a certain manner," he said. "They walk with their heads down and shuffle their feet. They've been broken in spirit and give up on their role in humanity. They're like cogs in a machine. I did things to distinguish myself."
He wrote letters.
He forged hearts and crosses out of dominoes that he rubbed against the walls.
"I'm in a room with nothing but a bedroll on an iron platform, a toilet and a sink," he said. "The highlight was when they'd bring your meal by and push it through the slot in the door. The lights are on all the time, and you lose track of day and night."
In the darkest hours, Paey nearly lost hope.
He said he was becoming institutionalized during his final months in prison. He didn't care if he got dressed or if there was a roach in his food.
The food was cold anyway.
He might have avoided all that by accepting a plea bargain.
But what had he done wrong?
"I hope to be setting an example about making principled decisions," he said. "It's not always easy to do what you believe is the right thing. There was some criticism that I should have taken the plea deal, cut the losses and not fought."
Paey shook his head.
"Sometimes, you just have to."
Reporter Jerome R. Stockfisch and photographer Greg Fight contributed to this report.
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