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Locked Up And Can’t Get Out - Page 3

By Dr. Elyk Ley 03/16/17

In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, a doctor battling addiction recounts his time in prison and the massive impact it had on his life. 

An inmate standing inside a jail cell with his arms crossed.

(page 3)

My criminal cases in the county court system were adjudicated with minimal reprimand. I was given a year of probation for the possession of $10 worth of crack cocaine – a result of a massive sting operation on a drug dealer in West Philadelphia.

Another case, one in which I actually allowed myself to be arrested while looking for a way out of my addiction, was transferred to and consolidated with my big case in Beaver County. It was the only direct evidence of me ever being inside of a pharmacy.

During that arrest, I saw the police entering ahead of me not long after I called the pharmacist to check on the readiness of a prescription. It was not unusual to see a police officer enter a pharmacy as a customer while the partner waited in the patrol car. But when both officers leave the car at the same time it, most times, signified official police business. I strongly suspected that they were waiting for me to arrive.

Normally, I would not have entered a pharmacy while two police officers were inside of it. However, I was so tired of my crazy lifestyle of drug use and crime that I desperately wanted it to end even if it meant incarceration. Something had to work to end my drug problem. I had been to several in-patient and out-patient drug rehabilitation facilities without success.

I was at a point where I didn’t like myself. My moral foundation was crumbling and I didn’t want to lose all hope of redemption. I knew of several addicts who had gone to jail and returned free of their addictions. Maybe jail would help me also. That was what I was thinking during the time of that arrest. The nervousness of the pharmacist when I asked for the medication confirmed my suspicions.

I stood while the officers walked toward me and placed the handcuffs on my wrists. I was hoping for at least several months in jail but despite being charged with a laundry list of crimes, I was released on my own recognizance the next day. But this arrest would prove to be extremely detrimental to my defense in my upcoming trial with the state prosecutors.

The day arrived for my transfer to the Beaver County Correctional Facility. I had never been transferred to another jail before. It was interesting and indicative of the depth of my legal woes. I was now in a suburban jail and the differences were marked in comparison to my experiences in the urban facility.

The prison garments were a higher quality navy blue trousers and shirt not much different than what I might have purchase for myself as casual wear items. The food was better quality and taste and the portions were larger. The jail was less overcrowded and the inmates appeared to be less dangerous because there was a smaller proportion of violent offenders. However, the pods and cells had less square footage and thus were more restrictive but the jail as a whole was more efficiently managed. Beaver County was one of the wealthiest counties in the state. 

A big problem for me at the suburban facility was that I did not know anyone there. There were no familiar faces amongst inmates or staff. There was no one to give me the skinny on the unwritten rules of the jail. I didn’t know who to trust so I had to rely on my street smarts and my knowledge of human behavior to get by and stay out of trouble. I had to put on like I was a seasoned inmate to hide my true anxieties and fears. I had an enormous legal challenge ahead of me in a conservative suburban county. Their courts had a reputation of having a very high conviction rate and not playing by the rules.

My professional degree was both an asset and a liability in jail. Some inmates respected me for it and were very surprised that I was incarcerated - not many physicians go to jail and those that did were mostly in federal penal institutions.

In contrast, there were inmates who presumed that I was naïve and vulnerable, thinking that I knew nothing about the struggles, stresses and survivor strategies that are intrinsic to inner-city existence and incarceration. I used my recently acquired jailhouse jargon at every opportunity to lessen the suspicion of being an outsider.

My former Laotian cellmate taught me well about what to say and what not to say and how to behave in jails. I had to dispel the “college boy" image as much as I could. I was very active on the basketball court (my favorite sport) and in the weight room. I played a lot of chess and was consulted for my professional opinion about inmates’ health concerns. My basketball game was pretty good for a 45-year-old man. I wasn’t a star player but the younger guys respected me and from those associations acquaintances developed.

My chess game, well, it improved with time. Playing these games gave me insight into the personalities of the inmates that I had to live with. I assessed who was civil, who was sociopathic, who was psychopathic and who was in dire need of anger-management training. It was better to find out during a game than during a personal confrontation.

Jail was a place where anything goes. It was survival by any means necessary. I was constantly thinking, evaluating, assessing and diagnosing. I had to successfully adapt or I would perish or at the very least have a very stressful and precarious incarceration experience.

The Beaver County facility had a greater mixture of Black, White and Hispanic inmates because of the racial composition of the county. They were able to live peacefully amongst each other because the stress level in the jail was low and many of them came from mixed communities. In jail, race is less of a social determinant as compared to the free world.

Everyone is a prisoner who first and foremost is trying to regain freedom. Race comes into play but not nearly as much as in the general society. This may not be as valid at state penitentiaries where prisoners are serving longer sentences and tend to socialize along ethnic and racial lines. One could have a friend of a different race in jail that would not even be acknowledged if encountered on the outside.

I was transferred during the winter of 2003. As the days became warmer, yard time became an added and cherished activity to our daily regimen. The yard was a four-walled brick and concrete enclosure with an open exposure to the sky but without the presence of trees and grass. It wasn’t much but it was our only exposure to fresh air and sunshine. Yard time was when the inmates on a pod/section could freely intermingle and socialize without the overt presence of the prison guards.

Contraband like tobacco, drugs or anything that an inmate needed or wanted could be transacted during yard time. Taking away an inmate’s yard time was an extremely effective tool of retribution for the prison administration.

There is a game called “wall ball” that I had not played in 35 years but was popular during yard time at the jail. I was good at it as a kid and it was a pleasant reminiscence to see and play it again because it brought back a time of childhood innocence and purity. I literally became the best player on the pod for the entire 19 months that I was there – and I was in my mid-forties.

For me, exercise in prison was essential for relieving the stress and anxiety that could elevate to extremely high levels at times. The anticipation of a protracted loss of liberty could be quite discombobulating. The motto amongst prisoners was “hope for the best but prepare for the worse.”

A major advantage of the Beaver County facility was the law library. It was a significant improvement compared my previous jail library because there were no missing books or torn out pages. There was nothing more upsetting than to research an important case or statute only to find that the page was torn out of the book and there were no other copies.

It was at this law library that I received my self-taught legal education. I had to formulate a defensive strategy – along with my public defender – for 10 separate criminal charges for a total of 417 counts (three of my cases were consolidated).

Each charge had to be investigated and researched thoroughly looking for any mistakes made by the arresting officers, prosecuting attorney or the judge. I had never been so motivated in my life. One major disadvantage of the library was the restriction on photocopying legal material. Any potentially exculpatory (supporting acquittal) information had to be copied by hand.

As a result, by the time I went to trial I had 15 legal pads of handwritten notes using both sides of each sheet of paper. I was focused and consumed by my case or as they say in jail “I was getting it in.” I had to; it was either fight or get slaughtered in court. Public defenders have utilitarian value for simple and uncomplicated legal proceedings, most times, but my case was massive. The discovery (evidence) in my case was in several large cardboard boxes that the prosecutor had to wheel into the courtroom!

It required a lot of reading and research that public defenders just weren’t paid enough to do. They are salaried attorneys, who are paid the same whether they win or lose cases and most of them are overworked and underpaid. I needed an attorney with courtroom clout but those guys required money that I did not have. I had foolishly spent it all on drugs. That was very painful to think about but it was a truth that I had to accept.

In my opinion, there are basically three types of public defenders: The first is the recent law school graduate who is sincere in effort but terribly inexperienced. Then, there is the public defender who is truly an advocate for legal justice and the client. He/she is fully aware that financial assets influence guilt or innocence and freedom or incarceration. This person is quite competent and could easily be working in a prestigious law firm. This type of public defender will fight tooth and nail for each client. Lastly, there is the public defender whose competence is in question and probably could not get a job anywhere else and whose legal and business skills could not sustain a solo practice.

I was fortunate to have a seasoned and competent public defender but the magnitude of my case was somewhat overwhelming and the political pressure from the attorney general’s office was formidable. He knew the case against me was weak but to fight it was just too much work and would require financial resources that were non-existent in his office. I probably needed a team of lawyers.

So I had to do the work myself from inside the jail. I learned about Rules of Procedure, Rules of Evidence, Commonwealth statutes and case law. Details and minutiae are enormously important in legal proceedings. I worked extremely hard on my case but nearly every time I discovered a way to lessen my legal burden my attorney would not pursue it or pursued it lackadaisically.

I was beginning to think that the fix was in for me. My case was a fait accompli. After all the time and money spent investigating and apprehending me, the state was not letting me go without winning as many convictions as it could, even if it meant ignoring my constitutional rights, extant statutes and case law.

I was on my own.

Dr. Elyk Ley is the pseudonym for an American author. 

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