In the shadows of healthcare
A nubby black cloth covers the sole window in Frank Lucero’s Hemet living room, casting a perpetual dusk over his refuge, a space as cramped as the prison cells where he spent a decade.
He can’t bear the light. Even an overcast day on the sprawling range shadowed by the San Jacinto Mountains brings on headache, dull pain in his right eye and ghostly sensations in the empty socket of his left.
Lucero has been legally blind since his left eyeball burst a year ago from glaucoma that went untreated during a stint in the Chino state prison for parole violation. He can’t read, drive or navigate the world outside his tiny duplex except during the muted moments around sunrise and sunset.
Out since February, he lives in an altered state of confinement, at liberty yet locked in by his injury and chagrin over the deformity he masks with plum-colored glasses.
Lucero has sued the state, his claims echoing accusations in two high-profile class-action suits brought against the state seven years ago.
Those complaints, alleging that inmates die of curable or avoidable illnesses at the rate of one a week, prompted U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson to deem prison healthcare in California so deficient as to violate the Constitution. In 2006, Henderson seized control of prison medical, mental health and dental services and appointed a receiver to oversee them.
Lucero hadn’t been able to see much since being diagnosed with glaucoma while at Soledad State Prison in 2005. Still, with medication, he was able to work jobs moving furniture in between time served for drug use, petty theft and skipped meetings with his parole agent.
“I’d been using eyedrops to manage the pressure,” said Lucero, square-jawed and sporting a jet-black ponytail that reaches to his waist, recalling the vial of prednisolone acetate that he said was taken from him when he entered the California Institution for Men in Chino in February 2008.
Prison rules barred medications other than those prescribed by staff doctors. Fill out the forms, he said he was told, and he did so repeatedly.
Yet three months into a yearlong sentence, with dozens of appeals to see an eye doctor unheeded and the pain growing unbearable, Lucero said, he still had neither the anti-inflammatory medication nor a prescription for glasses.
He had headaches and dizziness.
His equilibrium and speech were affected.
“Some days I couldn’t put together a sentence without yammering and stuttering,” he said.
On May 23, 2008, Lucero was sitting on his bunk, his head cradled in his hands, when his throbbing eyeball “just exploded.”
His screams spurred what he describes as an unusual act of camaraderie among the nearly 200 other prisoners milling around the packed, makeshift cell built in what used to be an exercise yard.
Someone gave him a towel to stop the bleeding. Another prisoner alerted the guards, who sounded a code three alarm, summoning the team of guards and medics usually brought in to quell riots.
An ambulance raced him the 20 miles to Riverside County Regional Medical Center, where his eye was diagnosed as irreparable. He went back to Chino for two weeks, until the swelling subsided enough for surgeons to remove the mangled eyeball, along with the connective tissue, muscle and nerves he would have needed for a transplant.
In March, a month after his release, Lucero sued the state, alleging dereliction of duty to safeguard the health of those in custody who have no recourse.
State officials moved to dismiss the suit, said Scott Gerber, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.
But U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess found in late June that Lucero’s complaint of “cruel and unusual punishment” at the hands of a prison medical appeals analyst was sufficient to go to trial. The judge dismissed the case against others in the corrections system on technical grounds, giving Lucero until mid-July to make a viable case against them.
With litigation pending, state prison officials declined to discuss the specifics of Lucero’s case.
J. Clark Kelso, the court-appointed receiver overseeing the prison medical system, argues that his team is making progress in fixing a broadly broken system, while conceding that the effort is slowed by the daunting scope of the task and the state’s budget crisis.
“Even if I had all the money in the world, it’s such an enormous set of projects,” Kelso said.
He plans to computerize paper medical records for 171,000 prisoners, replace a deficient pharmacy operation, build at least $2 billion worth of hospitals and upgrade existing ones.
Those improvements are all at least a year and a half away, probably longer, given the state’s search for $24 billion in spending reductions, Kelso conceded.
Lucero scoffs at the outlook for fixing healthcare in a system bursting at the seams. Most California prisons have at least twice as many inmates as they were designed to accommodate.
“I don’t think anyone went out of their way to keep me from getting treatment,” Lucero said, adding that prison nurses and orderlies gave him the requisite forms for appointments that were never forthcoming.
“Paperwork gets shuffled, misplaced. Sometimes even when it does get filed it goes through a lot of channels,” he said.
But with an eye transplant that might have restored his sight and mobility now out of the question, he wants someone held accountable.
At the very least, he says, the state should provide him with a prosthetic eye.
“I’m real self-conscious about having a hole in my head,” said Lucero, turning his face in profile to hide the socket he’s plugged with a plastic ball to hold its shape.
Lucero is theoretically eligible for state and federal disability payments.
But he finds himself mired in paperwork he can’t read, and negotiating an unfamiliar labyrinth of state and federal offices he can’t get to unless his mother comes over from her job running the family’s slot-machine factory in Bullhead City, Ariz.
Fit from lifting weights to break the monotony of days spent alone, Lucero holds little hope of finding employment or a place in Hemet beyond the two darkened rooms of the duplex.
Despite the lack of distraction, he insists that he won’t again be lured into the drug scene.
“I’m not interested in going back in ever again. I lost a body part last time,” Lucero said. “I’m done with all that, anyway. I’m 40 years old. My body’s not young anymore.”
He takes responsibility for what landed him in prison.
His parents split up when he was 11, but his childhood in Baldwin Park was happy, or typical, at least, he says.
“I can’t blame my family or my upbringing for getting into trouble. It was more the availability of the drugs and where I was at at the time,” he recalled.
But he harbors resentment toward authorities who he says have deprived him of any chance of a normal life and full rehabilitation.
“I don’t think I should take any responsibility for being neglected,” Lucero said. “My hands were tied. If I wasn’t in custody at the time I could have sought medical treatment. I would still have the option of a transplant.”
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