The Eyes Have It

By Mike Powers 

          A side effect of “doing time”, naturally, is growing older. And, of course, a side effect of growing older is dimming sight. In the TDCJ, this process is complicated and magnified by the fact that while they may have many lights, the ones they do have are of poor quality. 

          One of the few things a prisoner can do to keep himself occupied in here is to read, and everybody knows that reading in poor light is bad for your eyes, and this contributes to the problem as well. 

          You probably all remember those wonderful vapor lights they had in the school gym when you were a kid. For at least eleven of the last fifteen years of my life, that’s the light I’ve had to live by. There’s a reason they never installed those lights in the classroom. They suck. Besides being virtual heat lamps, the light they cast is a weird hue, and it’s hard on your eyes to read by it. 

          They sell reading lamps on the commissary. (Imagine that. Sorry, all you indigent folk.) For several years now they’ve come with compact fluorescent bulbs instead of incandescent. These bulbs have come a long way since I was a kid. Still, I must be old-fashioned, because I like to read either by the sun or by incandescent. Whether or not fluorescent lights are better or worse on your eyes for reading purposes, I’ve no idea. 

          Here’s where it gets tricky, though. Getting eye problems taken care of in here is harder than getting your teeth fixed. Currently, there is a six-month-long wait to go see an optometrist and get glasses. That’s a long time to wait if you need some peepers, but there doesn’t seem to be any accelerating this process. If you are getting fuzzy, you submit a Nurse Sick Call asking for an eye exam. You get laid in the following day to go down to the infirmary where a nurse will tell you to stand on a tape-line a certain distance from an eye chart. You will be instructed to read the chart. Usually, if your sight is good enough to see a bus coming at you from twenty yards away, you will be passed, and you will not get an exam scheduled. In the unlikely event that you do get an exam, you will sit around watching blurry people walk by for the next half a year while you await the optometrist. Can’t read? Sorry, wait for your appointment. Can’t write home? Sorry, wait for your appointment. Oh, you have a case pending in the appeals court with just one shot at having your conviction overturned or you're stuck in prison for the next two decades? Sorry, wait for your appointment! 

          I should have gleaned a better understanding of the prison eye care program the first time I was scheduled to see an eye doctor because something was literally stuck in my eye. (It turned out it was a grain of sand.) He gave me a full exam and unimpressively diagnosed a condition I’ve had since birth, “lazy eye”. (Which is a misnomer, by the way. Few people know that “lazy eye” is neither laziness nor a condition of the eye at all. Rather, it has to do with faulty communication between the brain and the eye.) He told me that there was a chance I could correct this condition if I would cover up my good eye for several weeks. “Okay,” I told him. “Give me an eye patch.”

          “Nope, can’t do that.” So much for medicine that goes to the mat for you.

          Now, a lot of people come into the penal system with eyeglasses or contacts. If it’s contacts, that’s a shame, because you can no longer get the cleaning supplies you need in here to keep up your contacts. They’ve done away with that since I was incarcerated. I’ve been unable to find out what happens to these folks upon entering the system, but I’m guessing they have to wait six months to get examined before anything else is done for them.

          If you wear glasses, bucko, you better take care of them. All’s it takes is one basketball or volleyball to the face, and, guess what? You’ll be fuzzy-eyed for the next six months waiting for a new pair. If your one of the fortunate ones who has an active prescription in your family’s possession, you can sometimes get permission from the warden to allow your family to order new glasses and send them in. This is a dicey proposition, mostly because so few of the wardens will allow it, or they allow it, but put severe restrictions on the type of glasses that can be sent in. Most likely, you’ll end up looking like Buddy Holly, and you SURE won’t be getting any of those fancy Transitions lenses that go dark in the sunlight. Protection from UV rays is NOT part of the TDCJ eyecare package. 

          Speaking of style, if and when you finally jump through all the hoops and wait long enough for your exam, you will get a prescription, and your glasses will be ordered for you. About six weeks later (Did you think I was going to say six months?), you will be called back down to the infirmary and handed your glasses. This is as close as you will ever come to a fitting session, which is why you see so many prisoners with shoe strings tied around the back of their head to hold up the glasses. You put on your new gear, and look just like...YOU GUESSED IT- Buddy Holly, IF you're lucky. There was a style of glasses for a while that kind of made you look like 1970’s Elvis, but with no rhine-stones on the rims- big thick-plastic suckers. However, there is no denying the longevity of these new glasses. They are made to last, and I’m pretty sure they could withstand the impact of a bunker-buster bomb. Roaches will go extinct before these glasses do. 

          Anyway, all you freedom-loving glasses wearers out there, as you put on your spectacles tomorrow morning, sigh a prayer of thankfulness that you get to make out the edges clearly.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez