The Illinois Department of Corrections has taken action to ensure prisoners have access to eye surgery, following a WBEZ investigation.
Illinois Department of Corrections officials are taking action against a so-called "one good eye" policy. The move comes after a WBEZ investigation found prisoners could not get eye surgery, because staff considered one good eye enough for the daily activities of a prisoner.
In an email to Wexford, the private company that runs Illinois' prison healthcare, Illinois Department of Corrections Medical Director Steve Meeks said Wexford's written eye surgery policy "has been interpreted as implying" that prisoners can't get surgery on both eyes.
But Meeks wrote that "this is not the position of the office of health services," and if a doctor recommends surgery in both eyes "those recommendations are to be followed." He instructed Wexford to communicate that information to its medical providers.
One person featured in WBEZ's story, Paulette Fiedler, said she had cataracts in both eyes and the prison forced her to choose which eye she wanted to get fixed. WBEZ has not been able to contact Fiedler since the story, but according to a friend of Fiedler, the prison has now approved surgery on her second eye.
Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the ACLU of Illinois, said the Department's move on the "one good eye" policy was a positive development.
"The state, however, will need to be vigilant to ensure that patients are getting appropriate evaluations by ophthalmologists as a starting point," Yohnka said.
The ACLU of Illinois, in collaboration with Uptown People's Law Center, has fought major legal battles over prison healthcare. And Yohnka said many of the physicians working for Wexford have not been good at recognizing what care prisoners actually need.
For months, WBEZ has sought a copy of the eye surgery policy for Illinois prisoners, but both IDOC and Wexford have declined to provide a copy stating that it's a "trade secret."
Nonetheless, Wendelyn Pekich, a spokesperson for Wexford, said in an emailed statement that the problem was not with the written policy, but with confusion over the policy.
"The policy's wording was misinterpreted, which resulted in confusion about how we manage cataract patients. Wexford Health has addressed and clarified the points of confusion with IDOC medical leadership," Pekich said.
Wexford has a 10-year, more than $1.4 billion contract with Illinois that ends in 2021.
Illinois State Representative LaShawn Ford said the state needs to make major demands in that contract.
"We need to make sure that we have a high quality, strong mental and physical health system to meet the needs of the individuals that are incarcerated, and we have a long way to go," Ford said.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h