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This Man Went Into Jail For An Unpaid Fine And Came Out Blind In One Eye

Eddie Robsinson, left, with his son on the day he was released last July. His right eye is visibly clouded with glaucoma. CREDIT: EDDIE ROBINSON
Eddie Robsinson, left, with his son on the day he was released last July. His right eye is visibly clouded with glaucoma. CREDIT: EDDIE ROBINSON

When Eddie Robinson got sent back to jail last year because he couldn’t pay a fine required by his probation, he had plenty of worries about going back behind bars.

Getting prescription eye drops four times a day for his glaucoma didn’t seem like it would be one of them. Jails have professional medical staff, after all, and he went in with clear doctor’s instructions.

But within weeks, Robinson had gone totally blind in his right eye, leaving him unable to return to work as a truck driver — and with higher odds of long-term deterioration in his other eye as it overcompensates for what Robinson says a for-profit prison medical company took from him.

Robinson is suing Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher and Corizon Health, Inc., after the company’s employees only applied his eyedrops six times in 25 days, rather than the 100 treatments his prescription required. The professional truck driver’s right eye had tested at 20/40 on an eye chart in the day he was re-admitted to jail. After two weeks without proper treatment, the lawsuit alleges, he couldn’t read even a single letter of the chart with his right eye.

All that over simple eyedrops that he could have administered himself.

“I had ’em and then all of a sudden they took ’em away from me and they put me in general population instead of medical. They said it’s what their boss told them to do,” Robinson told ThinkProgress. To force his way back into the jail’s medical unit where he could have a better shot at treatment, Robinson went on a seven-day hunger strike. “It pissed them off,” he said, but it got him relocated.http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/03/31/3641160/prison-director-allegedly-took-away-inmates-wheelchair-punish-complaining-abuse/Not soon enough. A deteriorating condition like glaucoma doesn’t respond well to two weeks of neglect. The under-treatment, reportedly corroborated by jail medical records, left Robinson in agony and caused his condition to accelerate such that he required a cornea transplant “as soon as possible” according to an outside eye doctor his jailers sent him to at the time.

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But even then, Robinson’s suit alleges, Corizon declined to perform the surgery. Instead, the company deemed it a non-emergency procedure and scheduled it for months later. Robinson was released before the scheduled surgery, saving Corizon the expense of paying for the procedure.

Robinson finally had his surgery just this week, and still has 16 stitches in his eye. “They’re pulling one stitch out per month so I’m looking at one year til all my stitches are removed. I can distinguish colors and distance right now but I still have blurred vision,” he said. That’s a big improvement over being totally blind in his right eye, but “it’s 50–50 on getting back to what I had before.”

The company’s contract with Chatham County pays a flat fee of $5 million, according to the lawsuit, and Corizon’s profits depend on how much or little of that payment they end up spending to provide care for prisoners.

Corizon has declined to comment on the case, citing medical confidentiality. Sheriff Wilcher’s office referred ThinkProgress’ questions to the company.

They said it’s what their boss told them to do.

But to Robinson’s attorney David Utter, who has worked on cases like this all across the southern United States his whole career, the biggest questions are for the system that chewed Robinson up and spat him out half-blind.

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“It’s shocking how little creativity and alternatives Savannah uses. I’ve never been to a place where we only have one response to any criminal misbehavior and it’s jail,” Utter said. “Our city leaders are constantly decrying, ‘Why does our poverty rate stay the same year after year after year,’ and nobody looks at over-incarceration and the use of the jail as a possible cause when it clearly is.”

“Eddie’s infractions are all nonviolent. The notion of using jail for someone like that and then to have him come out blind is just so outrageous and unfathomable.”

One man’s pain is another man’s profit. Corizon is the largest corporate prison medical provider in the country, with well over $1 billion in billings each year. But almost anywhere you find Corizon, you’ll also find allegations of neglect and reports of formal company policies against treating Hepatitis C. Inmates have sued the company for neglect and wrongful death from sea to shining sea.

The many Americans who run afoul of Corizon after getting crushed in the gears of the American criminal justice system aren’t alone. Corizon is also losing friends on Wall Street. http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/03/24/3636849/questionable-ethics-private-prison-health-care-company-gunning-dc-contract/The firm’s parent company, Valitas, has repeatedly been downgraded by Moody’s. The ratings company now lists Valitas’ corporate debts as a “high default risk.” There are at least $360 million worth of securities kicking around the investment world that are based on Valitas’ borrowing. Valitas itself is owned by a Chicago-based private equity firm. Capitalism’s equivalent of an apex predator, private equity firms convert bad corporate debts into esoteric profit opportunities for a tiny number of shrewd lawyers and investors who rarely have to worry about what happens to the human beings on the far opposite end of their transactions.

Corizon’s CEO Woodrow Myers has downplayed the company’s struggles. “There’s a huge number of lawsuits, but they’re not specific to Corizon,” Myers told Modern Healthcare in 2015. “They are specific to this industry.”

For-profit prison healthcare is indeed a much larger problem than Corizon. The three largest for-profit providers of medical care behind bars oversee nearly three-quarters of a million inmates across a majority of states. To keep the bottom-line watchers at places like Moody’s happy, and keep CEOs like Myers well-fed, these companies have to squeeze every possible nickel out of the contracts they win with state and local governments that have chosen to outsource their prisoners’ well-being.

It’s 50–50 on getting back to what I had before.

That dynamic reverses the traditional philosophy of medical care, where professionals put patients’ health first. As Corizon employees previously told ThinkProgress, the reality on the ground gets ugly fast: Understaffing to prop up corporate cashflows means inmates inevitably get substandard care when well-intentioned employees are outnumbered 20-to-1 by patients.

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Nearly a year after he was released, Robinson is fighting his way back onto his feet. His seven years of Coast Guard service made him eligible for Veterans Affairs programs, and he moved up to Charleston, South Carolina, to take a bed in a homeless shelter and enroll in a work training program. He’s a cook now, making a little above minimum wage helping feed other veterans. The move took him away from his 27-year-old son, who still lives and works in Savannah.

The part-time job has let him find his own place to rent, and he talks to his son every day on the phone. But a he said-she said dispute that landed him in jail in the first place had already destroyed much of his life even before Corizon allegedly robbed him of half his sight and his livelihood as a trucker.

“I’ve lost everything, the house we lived in for 23 years, everything,” Robinson said.