Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2021

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Nevada prison wrong to deny inmate cataract surgery, court rules

A federal appeals court has ruled that Nevada prison officials may have shown “deliberate indifference” in refusing to allow cataract surgery to an inmate who was functioning with one good eye.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Thursday that convicted killer John Colwell was entitled to a trial challenging the prison’s “one good eye” policy.

The court, in its 2-1 decision, said the prison may be guilty of cruel and inhumane punishment in refusing the surgery.

Colwell, 67, was admitted to the prison in 1991 to begin a life without possibility of parole term for a murder in Douglas County. While in prison he developed eye problems and had cataract surgery to fix his left eye. He developed a cataract soon after on his right eye that left him blind in that eye since 2002.

That cataract has never been treated despite requests by Colwell. The court, in the majority opinion written by Judge Barry Silverman, said monocular blindness is a serious medical need.

Colwell, according to the court, suffered physical injuries due to the blindness including running his hand through a sewing machine on two occasions in the mattress factory, regularly hitting his head on the upper bunk of his cell and bumping into other inmates, which resulted in fights.

The court said the prison ignored the recommendation of two eye specialists for surgery. “The evidence shows the Nevada Department of Corrections denied cataract surgery on him as he had one good eye,” said the court.

Silverman said a reasonable jury could find prison officials denied treatment because of the policy to “endure reversible blindness in one eye if he can see out of the other.”

Judge Jay Bybee dissented, saying there was no evidence that the prison had a “one good eye” policy or that the state was deliberately indifferent to Colwell’s condition.

Bybee said Colwell takes part in religious services, plays cards, attends a computer class and reads a book a day when “he is doing well.” He walks for exercise but cannot play sports. He does not suffer physical pain.

“There are many Americans who have monocular vision and are perfectly functional,” said Bybee. “They hold jobs, drive cars, play sports, watch movies and move among the binocular population without us even being aware of their condition.”

In a footnote, Bybee said the vast majority of states grant driver’s license to individuals with monocular vision.

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