If someone asked you whether or not you were a good person, you would have little reason to tell her otherwise. At least, by general standards, you fall safely into that category. You and a partner have been running an honest business for years now and have operated successfully with no legal trouble. But one day, you are surprised with a notification from the Department of Justice and Health and Human Services declaring that your company is under investigation of Medicare overpayments. Odd…your revenues had amounted to a tremendous amount more than that, so why should you be subjected to investigation? But after a nightmarish ordeal that stretched on for several years, you are charged with Medicare Fraud and Mail Services Fraud, and slapped with a seventy-month sentence in a Marianna, Florida, prison camp.
Angie Isley, former convict and falsely accused of her crime, wants her voice to be heard. After suffering from the corruption of our penal system, she is striving to make her case known to prevent others from falling victim to false crime. With blunt poignancy, she recounts her unprovoked involvement in her case and the shock of being found guilty with no substantial evidence against her. And, with occasionally light humor, she describes the nearly five years that followed behind bars, the last place where a middle-aged, white, educated businesswoman expects to find herself. Breaking through the public’s stereotypes of not only felons, but also “prison lesbians,” she opens up about how her sexual identity as a lesbian also shaped her experience. Angie shares her story with me in the following interview:
ME: Tell me about the circumstances leading up to your sentence. What were you there for?
ANGIE: In short, I was charged with Medicare Fraud. I owned a medical company. I did not commit Medicare Fraud. I went to trial and lost. That’s the short story. I was also charged with Honest Services Mail Fraud, which is no longer a statute in my situation. Jeffery Skilling with Enron took his case to the Supreme Court and won. So, my charges of Honest Services Fraud would have never been charged if my case were going on today. I was over charged and over sentenced. The system is not kind to educated middle-aged white women. I was treated unjustly because I fought back against the DOJ. The judge seemed prejudiced against women and made several remarks during my trial.
ME: For what reasons were you wrongfully accused?
ANGIE: I hired a toxic employee back in 1998. I did not know she was toxic. I hired her because she had many years experience running orthopedic practices, and I needed an administrator. By 2001, I knew she was a problem – a chronic liar and not trustworthy, but I just could not put my finger on it. I finally fired her in March of 2003 for a list of reasons. My business partner FINALLY saw my side and decided it was time for her to go. She went immediately to the FBI and alleged fraud. She filed a whistle blower suit against the company, my partner, and me. We did not know for one year that she filed a suit. It was a sealed case for a year.
The FBI showed up at an employee’s house on night months later to interview her. The next day we invited the FBI into our office for a meeting. We had nothing to hide so we did not call our lawyers. That was a mistake. Never invite the fox into the chicken house. We were naïve. The initial interview with the FBI was on November 6th, 2003. That’s when we knew we were in trouble. They served us a subpoena and we had a month to gather what they wanted to see. Even though the list of allegations was lengthy, they quickly narrowed the scope down to a few Medicare issues that, at the time, were in question in the industry. We were billing Medicare exactly like most everyone in our industry so we believed we were correctly billing. Subsequently, at my trial, even Medicare admitted the claims we submitted for payment were correct. But understand there are many twists and turns in my case. The prosecutor that indicted me did not want to indict the case. She knew there was no case. She indicted me then abruptly resigned her position and went to work with a big defense firm in Atlanta... We were without a prosecutor for several months. The new guy came in from Securities and Exchange prosecution. He didn’t have a clue about healthcare.
ME: For which reasons were you found guilty?
ANGIE: Why did I lose? The “jury of my peers” simply did not understand the complexities of Medicare billing. The prosecution did a grand job of making me look like a rich, overpaid, corrupt professional. They also made my former partner (not business partner, my marriage of ten years [which] dissolved through this) testify against me. They put her on the stand to bring in the “lesbian” component. They wanted to put that out there in front of a conservative, Southern, “Bible Belt” jury. The judge allowed it. Then after Tracy’s testimony, they threw it out because it was not relevant. Too late. Now the jury knew I was gay. They were trying to slaughter me for my lifestyle. It was a low blow and the judge allowed it. The prosecution got that testimony heard, but you cannot unhear that, and the jury was certainly tainted.
ME: Were there other employees working with you who were also sentenced to serve time?
ANGIE: I told my business partners all along that we could survive this. We just needed to stick together. In the end, they threw me under the bus. The government went to my working business partner (there were only two of us who worked in the business) and offered him a deal. He got probation to testify against me. Mind you…he was the CEO. I was the COO and he took their offer. Because of that, he basically testified to negligence. There was nothing he could say incriminating me because he also knew that no crime took place. There was no fraud. And in the end, we proved that there was no billing issue. Medicare testified that the codes we used were correct.
ME: How was the transition from society into the institution?
ANGIE: My transition to prison was surreal. It took me about nine months to get used to the insanity of prison. If you have watched “Orange is the New Black,” [a Netflix television series], it’s a very good picture of prison life. Being white, middle-aged, educated, and “white collar” is a very tough road in prison for many reasons. White people are the low person on the run. Educated people are frowned upon by staff and the other women. Mixing with a mostly drug population when you’ve never done drugs or been exposed to drug behavior was hard.
ME: How were you generally treated by the prison guards? Did your interactions with them vary among institutions?
ANGIE: I was treated well by the officers. They knew I was different from the start. How do they know? Well, I have all my teeth, they are white, I speak perfect English, I look and carry myself differently, and appear to be educated. I never had problems with officers. Generally speaking, the black female guards don’t like older white educated women. I just stayed away from them. The male guards never bothered me. I know some did bother other women. I occasionally had female officers hit on me. I can take that and it never bothered me. There is plenty of sex between officers and inmates and inmates and other inmates that goes on. Depending on the situation, it’s mostly ignored. However, if it’s inmate-to-inmate contact, it depends on how homophobic the staff members are. When I was in Texas at the medical center, nobody cared. Plenty of women had girlfriends.
Staff members are another breed. They are not officers. They are administrative people. Most are not educated in the sense that they did not go to college, so they are threatened by people like me. They don’t like smart women. I was not afraid of the staff and challenged them when things made no sense to me. This was an issue. I questioned many things. I would not necessarily back down. In Marianna, I had a BIG problem with the administrator and questioned many things. Ultimately, she shipped me off her campus. She alleged that I collected a “following of people.” The campus was small and many looked to my leadership. She saw this as a threat. The officer in charge of my investigation who hated the administrator told me it was a strategic play to get rid of me.
ME: I can't help but picture that mustached character from “Orange is the New Black”...I sincerely hope you didn't have any of those!
ANGIE: OITNB – It’s over dramatized. First of all, Piper was at a camp, NOT an FCI. So, there was no fence for her. They are making this look worse and scarier to get viewers to watch. [But] I had no issues at any time with prison guards. In Marianna, they were pretty harmless.
ME: While serving your time, how did your sexual orientation affect your experience? What was it like?
ANGIE: Being openly gay in my large city is very different than my prison experience. At my age, I never though I needed to broadcast my sexual orientation. I’ve spent 25 years marching the marches and funding equal rights and also pushing for equal rights to marriage. I live in a metropolitan city where it’s acceptable to be gay and it’s not an issue. Homophobia is alive and well in the prison system. I have never been discriminated against in my life, except in prison. One possible reason is that the women who go to prison who are not gay and then try to become gay or develop relationships with other women because there are not men around taint the entire picture. We call it “gay for the stay.” I was essentially “straight for the stay,” as opposed to others who play lesbians for sport during incarceration. My belief is that these women are lonely and not very well grounded. I would tell people that I am not a “prison lesbian.” I am a real world lesbian who has been in and knows how to have healthy relationships. These prison relationships are primarily toxic. This was not my playing field. So, essentially people would surmise that I’m a gay snob. Okay, I admit to having a high standard. There were no other lesbians akin to me in prison. So the staff and officers mistakenly threw me in with the rest of the unhealthy women who “thought” they might be gay only to go out there and create a bunch of drama. Which made the real lesbians look bad.
What is it like being gay in prison? Well, from the standpoint of the other women there who are somewhat needy, I was a magnet, whereas in my city with my people, I am not. Maybe it’s the comfort in my own skin that attracted other women. I’ve become comfortable in my own skin from growing up gay. We start that process early because we have to. I’ve never been attracted to straight women so prison was no different. You would think that being a lesbian in a women’s prison would be like a kid in a candy store. For me, the opposite was true. I did not want to be around all those women. Too messy, too much drama, too emotional, too unbalanced day in and day out. I made some good friends and I naturally migrate to straight women because there is no threat of attraction. I got hit on blatantly by a lot of women. I was never interested. I was even asked to leave the campus by a staff member. She wanted to date me. I declined. Never in my life have I ever been such a catch. This did not happen to me in my world.
So I ask why in prison? I think the women are needy. They are not as comfortable in their own skin and they are looking for something to fill the void in their life. They perceive me as being comfortable and having it together. I dated a few women who claimed to be gay but they really weren’t. Dating means about the level of junior high dating – going to dinner and hanging out. I did that with a few women one year until I decided I’d had enough of that. These simply were not my people.
ME: What was your experience transitioning back into society upon your release?
ANGIE: My transition back to society was a snap. The biggest hurdle was technology. I had to learn Facebook, iPhones, etc. When I left in September of 2008, there was no Twitter, Facebook was limited, and technology was very different. Otherwise, I came back and it’s like I was never gone. I missed five years but it was like I just moved to another city. As far as my career, I got out of medicine anyway. I am precluded from ever dealing with Medicare again and frankly, I want nothing to do with them anyway. Call it a bad divorce. I am a business owner by nature. I’ve never really worked for anyone before anyway. Now, I am working with some friends on an Internet project concerning the mortgage industry.
But the emotional and mental scars of a decade of torture remain. Women of my class and caliber don’t usually transition very well going into prison. We all usually acquire some degree of PTSD.
ME: So were there no major adjustments you faced?
ANGIE: I came home to live with my parents who are eighty. While I was incarcerated, my best friend was killed in a car accident my grandmother died a week after I got sent to prison, my ex-girlfriend died of an aneurysm, my sister had breast cancer, and my mother has a rare blood cancer. So, I came back to stay at the lake with my mother and father to oversee their health, home, and finances. I missed a decade of being present for them. I am trying to make that up now. I landed well from prison. All of my friends are still in tact. I lost nobody to my debacle, except my marriage. I am very lucky. This is rare for most prisoners. My life is so much better than a decade ago. I met some amazing women in prison and saw and heard stories that let me know just w wonderful my life is. I am not bitter about my decade of debacle. The government just sucks and they are the worst criminals of all.
ME: Now that you’re back out, what’s your next move?
ANGIE: I’ll continue to fight this. Having gone to trial, I see how crooked the entire system is. One thing that attributes to my fighter style is my fight for gay rights for about 25 years. So, fear has not been a huge issue with me. I have always fought for what is right whether for basic human rights or my own big battles. While in prison, I began drafting a dissertation I wrote for possible publication. I’d be ecstatic to get something published. That is my ultimate goal.
*Originally, my intention as the author was to submit a proposal for the Institutional Review Board (IRB), but because of my subject’s personal relations to my family, and thus her full compliance of using all her written responses for this interview, an IRB proposal was not necessary.