Locked Up And Can’t Get Out

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. 

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

I had been to the county jail as an inmate a few times for brief stays over the years for minor offenses. It was a huge complex of four jails on a large stretch of land by a large river. It had a troubling history of overcrowdedness and poor living conditions. The majority of inmates were African-American and Hispanic as is the case in most urban jails across the country.

This time I knew that I would be in for a while. This was the real deal, my worst nightmare.

I reflected upon my experiences as a prison physician in the county and state correctional facilities in the past where I learned much from conversing with inmates and correctional officers and from my observations of the inner workings of prison systems. Prisons were a world of reality of their own unlike any other.

The rules of “street life" are modified to conform to the prison environment but the players are essentially the same. It’s all about survival of the fittest mind and body. Survival is predicated upon one’s ability to adapt - you have to be adept at adaptation, especially if you are new to the system.

Avoiding confrontations is essential but equally important is knowing to only be concerned with those matters that directly affect your safety or your freedom. Don’t gamble and don’t express untoward affection to the homosexual sub-population. Any display of weakness was inviting trouble from the seasoned criminals - those for whom imprisonment was an expected and accepted part of life.

I was assigned to a four-man cell that had been converted from a supply closet due to the overcrowded conditions. One of my cellmates was someone whom I knew from several years ago when I was freebasing cocaine at my cousin Chickie’s house. He was a fairly decent guy, in jail for operating an illegal taxicab. I sensed that he was as glad to see me as I was to see him because neither of us were experienced jailers. The other two cellmates were state prison inmates that were sent to the county court system for additional adjudicative matters. They sensed that I was unaccustomed to prison life so I had to be on guard at all times.

I didn’t want to be incarcerated but, honestly, I was getting a sense of order and structure back to my life. I was sleeping, eating and exercising regularly and with regularity. Most importantly, I was away from cocaine and the drug lifestyle.

When I was arrested my clothing consisted of short pants, a t-shirt and sandals. I hadn’t put on underwear because it was a hot night and I was in bed when Tee awakened me. It never occurred to me that I would not be returning to my room that night.

In jail, I was given the classic orange jumpsuit but I needed underwear. Any unusual body exposure in jail could be misinterpreted as a gesture of desiring a sexual relationship. Fortunately, I was a given a pair of undershorts by a former drug counselor of mine who had relapsed badly and was now an inmate.

One of the state inmates in my converted cell was completing a 13-year sentence for attempted murder of a police officer. He was extremely loquacious and would always refer to himself as the “gipper man.” It was a term that was beyond my jailhouse vocabulary. He and I shared the same bunkbeds and at night he would frequently talk about sexual topics stating that because of his lengthy incarceration he had forgotten what sex felt like. I just dismissed his conversation as just his way of dealing with confinement.

A few weeks later, when I was assigned to a two-man cell, he and I became cellmates (cellies). During our first day together, we argued over what I thought was an extremely minor issue: the water beads in the sink that he insisted I wipe after each use. I stated that I would try to be conscious of his request but that I could not assure him that I would not forget.

He insisted that I always do it and, in my defiance, I deliberately refused to do it to observe his reaction. Well, he performed melodramatically, threatening to kick my ass when the door was locked and the lights went out. It was my first confrontation as an inmate. He broadcasted his threat loudly so that other inmates could hear him. This meant that my jailhouse reputation was on the line. If it was unfavorable – by prison standards – it would follow me wherever I went within the prison system. The same was true for a favorable reputation.

That night I lay on my top bunk with my fist wrapped tightly around a ballpoint pen. It was the only weapon that I could find. I was ready to defend myself against my younger, bigger, stronger and more experienced cellmate.

My plan was puncture his carotid artery or jugular vein with the intent of severely injuring him, should he attack me. I couldn’t waste my energy trying to fight a guy in a locked cell who had probably been lifting weights everyday for the past 13 years.

Fortunately, he did nothing that night except talk and shake the bed occasionally whenever he thought that I was falling asleep. The next morning his verbal assault upon me was so vociferous that the guards moved him to a different cell.

During his first night with his new cellmate he tried to rape him! The two fought loudly until the correctional officers intervened in the early morning hours. A retrospective analysis of our brief time together led me to conclude that he was testing my courage and manliness with the sink demand he placed upon me. Had I acceded, I likely would have been perceived as weak and a potential candidate for sexual aggression. I really would have tried my best to kill him and just suffered the consequences if he had attacked me with that intent.

As I thought further about the transpired events, I realized that inmates who have served long prison sentences develop specific routines and habits that are crucial to coping with their imprisonment. The loss of freedom in a potentially hostile prison environment for many years is an extremely traumatic event that can spawn and augment idiosyncratic and a range of abnormal behaviors. Each inmate develops his/her own method of dealing with this psychosocial (and sometimes physical) trauma. The cell is the closest thing to a private domain that an inmate has, the only area that he/she has some control over.

Peculiar habits and routines are sometimes important to maintain psychological homeostasis. It is how one “bids.” Bid is a jailhouse term that refers to what an inmate does to get through each day, each week, each month and each year. A bid can be the act of cleaning, writing, eating, sleeping, card- or game-playing, weightlifting or even fighting. Having a bid is critical to survival but they can also change at any time during confinement. Once a prisoner becomes familiar with other prisoners in his/her cell block or dormitory, bids are acknowledged and respected as long as they don’t cause another inmate harm or extreme difficulty.

My new cellmate was a young Laotian (from Laos) guy who was a very interesting character study. He was a handsome, short, heavily accented drug dealer. I had never encountered an Asian cocaine dealer up to that point in my drug experiences (Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American, yes, but never Asian). More surprisingly, he was a gangster rapper who was familiar with all the lyrics of the popular rap songs of that time. He was an experienced jailer despite only being in his mid-twenties. He taught me the nuances of jail existence from our many late night conversations.

It was ironic that an Asian guy was teaching a Black guy about jail life. I felt comfortable around him and I actually trusted him. He taught me a lot about Asian-American culture especially in regards to its criminal elements: the gangs that rob, steal, extort and even murder. He was a chronic gambler, that was how he bidded as he waited to be deported to Laos because of his persistent and repetitive criminal behavior.

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The auto theft charge against me was completely false. I was innocent so it was the least worrisome of all the charges against me. On the day that the charge was thrown out in court, there was a glitch in the court system's computers. There was no record of my remaining open cases so I was about to be set free. I could have walked out of the hearing as a free man – at least until they discovered their mistake. But I was tired of running, hiding and looking over my shoulder so I reminded the authorities that I had more business with the courts that had yet to be adjudicated.

Furthermore, I was appreciating the reprieve from the cocaine craziness. In all truth, during my first six months of incarceration, I would have refused to leave the jail if it meant returning to the madness of the drugs and crime from whence I came.

One morning, as I lay on my bunk in a pensive mood, a correctional officer informed me that I had to prepare for an outside trip. I didn’t know what it was about but I was elated just to be going outdoors and away from the jail. It was a chance to see the trees and grass and be a part of the free society—if only momentarily.

I was picked up by state detectives who took me to be arraigned on my new state charges which were consolidated with the charges from the pharmacy arrest of earlier when Dana and I were detained. We never returned for our court hearings as we were ordered to. There was a lot of commotion and conferring and I was completely baffled by what was going on.

I was assigned a public defender who didn’t know much more than me about what was going on. I was surprised that the state attorney general’s office was prosecuting my case rather than the county district attorney. This was quite intimidating because of the vast resources of the state and it signified the seriousness of my situation. They finally had me after investing a lot of time using a lot of their resources to apprehend me.

I really had no understanding about the depth of their determination to prosecute me to the fullest extent of the law until that day. It was indeed a major affair. My bail was set at $100,000 cash - no %10 - which was equivalent to a million-dollar bail! I didn’t have the money, of course, and, as I mentioned, I was in no hurry to be released.

I was shocked by the magnitude of the case. There were 234 counts of insurance fraud; 76 counts of identity theft; 97 counts of forgery and four counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. A total of 411 felony charges! I was stunned! There was also an expansion of the charges from my previous arrest. The charges were nearly all derived from their confiscation and study of my pharmacy ledger that was found in the car from the earlier arrest that involved Dana and I.

I had kept meticulous records of my pharmacy transactions to avoid errors. I never bought the ledger out of the house. It was only in the car the day the day of the arrest because I was in the process of moving. It was the most significant and most damaging piece of evidence against me.

When I returned to the county jail I knew that this was going to probably be the toughest fight of my life. I was highly motivated to begin the daunting process of learning criminal law to begin researching the defense of my case. Each of the counts carried a maximum sentence of 3 ½ to 7 years. I had 411 counts, so I was potentially facing 2,877 years in prison. Whoa! It was surreal.

And there were charges from the other cases as well that I had to account for.

I was in deep shit.

That night, I cried silently as I lay in my bunk. I needed a skillful attorney but I had no money. When I had initially learned of the state’s investigation of me, I had attempted to put aside money for an attorney but I repeatedly dipped into it for cocaine purchases until it was depleted. I had $10 in my pocket when I was arrested.

There were a few thousand dollars in refillable prescriptions that were left at my cousin’s house but Dana got a hold of them the day after my arrest and she never sent me a dime of that money. I was facing the possibility of spending the next few decades in prison with all the charges against me.

I had to fight my best fight regardless of my circumstances. I never had much interest in criminal law but I knew that I could not depend upon a public defender to diligently represent my interests because my case was enormous and would require time that public defenders just did not have and were not paid well-enough to defend. It would have been a time-consuming case of meticulous paperwork.

My initial task was to master the language of the legal profession. I remembered from my study of medicine that learning word definitions was fundamental towards understanding the concepts of any academic discipline especially in the rarefied professions of law and medicine. I took advantage of every free minute that I was allowed to go to the jail law library. No one had my interest more at heart than me. No one would fight harder for my freedom than me. I read and reviewed legal documents and literature for several hours each day and I prayed like never before.

Every night in the adjacent cell there were groans of a sexual nature heard through the separating wall. The cell was occupied by two Hispanic inmates. One actually “looked” evil and mean, like someone whose path you just wanted to avoid. The other was older, potbellied and spoke limited English. They certainly did not appear to be gay or bisexual by any measure but every night there were moans and sometimes screams emitted from their cell. My Asian cellie had to have heard them. We talked about all kinds of subjects but even in the presence of the crude vocalizations from the adjoining cell he never commented on them.

Finally, I directed the conversation toward them and he was completely reticent about it. He just said, “Yeah, so what?” I took his reluctance to mean that the topic was something that was not discussed in a jail environment. He was telling me to mind my own business especially regarding sexual matters in prison. It was a lesson in inmate etiquette and the prisoners’ code of ethics. It was my first direct exposure to the homosexual behavior in prison as a prisoner. It’s a huge public health concern for the general society.

As a prison physician years earlier, I treated an inmate who had been gang-raped in his cell because he was a convicted pedophile. His story was that a few inmates forcefully entered his cell and put a razor to his throat then proceeded to rape him. The fate of pediatric sexual offenders was always grim in prisons. They often request protective custody to isolate themselves from the general population.

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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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