Nevada wrong to deny second cataract surgery to prisoner, court says

A federal court jury in Reno will soon be asked to decide whether one eye is good enough for a prison inmate.

John Colwell, 67, who’s serving life without possible parole developed cataracts in both eyes after being imprisoned. He had cataract removal surgery on his left eye in 2001.

But the other cataract blinded his right eye by 2002.

Over the years, three different specialists recommended surgery to fix his right eye, but the prison medical staff repeatedly denied the request saying a cataract doesn’t cause pain and can be fixed later if necessary.

Colwell sued arguing the denial violates his 8th Amendment right to be free from unnecessary pain and to receive needed medical care. But U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks in Reno granted summary judgment for the prison system.

On appeal, a majority of 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that reviewed the case disagreed and on Thursday ordered the case sent back to Hicks for trial.

“It is undisputed that his treating doctors recommended cataract surgery and that the surgery would restore his vision,” the majority wrote. “However the surgery was denied by NDOC supervisory medical personnel because of the NDOC’s “one eye policy” — cataract surgery is refused if an inmate can manage to function in prison with one eye.”

Judges Barry Silverman and William Fletcher found the surgery is a serious medical need. They ruled that blanket denial of medically indicated surgery based on an administrative policy “one eye is good enough for prison inmates” constitutes deliberate indifference.

“The evidence showed that Colwell was not ‘merely blind’ in one eye, but that his monocular blindness caused him physical injury: He ran his hand through a sewing machine on two occasions while working in the prison mattress factory; he ran into a concrete block, splitting open his forehead; he regularly bumps his head on the upper bunk of his cell; and he bumps into other inmates who are not good natured about such encounters, triggering fights on two occasions.”

Judge Jay Bybee dissented saying denial doesn’t violate Colwell’s rights to be free from unnecessary pain because “Colwell is not suffering any pain from his cataract and he is fully functioning in the ordinary tasks of prison life.”

Colwell is convicted of kidnapping and murder by a Douglas County jury in 1991. He’s currently in the Southern Desert Correctional Center.


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