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10News Investigates: Blinded Behind Bars

10:52 PM, Oct 25, 2012   |    comments
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An East Tennessee father says he's serving a life sentence even though he was only supposed to serve a few months in jail. Former Monroe County jail inmate Steven Reed says his time behind bars left him blind. Now, taxpayers are footing his medical bills.    

"I'm grateful for my parents taking care of me. No one else would have," Reed said.

His mother's unconditional love has kept Reed steady on the roughest road of his life.

"It's awful. Obviously I'm blind. But I can't smell. I can't taste. I don't hear that good. It's not where I thought I'd be at 28 years old," Reed said.

In a 10News Investigation, we visited Reed last month, hundreds of miles from his East Tennessee home in Detroit, Michigan. That's where his mother, Deborah Miller, has helped him deal with his disabilities.

"Cooking, cleaning, helping him find stuff. Get his clothes out for him. Pretty much help him around. Everything," Miller said.

Reed said what hurts the most is the fact that he can't take care of his kids. But this father of five wasn't born into a pitch black world.

"It just got dark," Reed recalls.

Reed contracted Cryptococcal Meningitis, a rare and aggressive infection.

"Most people that have Cryptococcal Meningitis will have a headache. That headache will be one that just stays there everyday for days and days," said Dr. Mark Rasnake, an infectious disease specialist at UT Medical Center. "Most people will have symptoms for two weeks or more before it gets severe enough that somebody will pick it up."

Reed's medical records show he was healthy before his symptoms initially appeared in February.

"Severe headaches, double-vision, and blurred vision. I complained for right at a month," Reed said.

At the time, Reed was an inmate at the Monroe County jail in Madisonville. He had been locked up since November for violating probation from a prior drug conviction. 

"I know I contracted it there...that place is like a dungeon," Reed said.

Jail records show Reed asked for medical attention on February 16 for "bad headaches making me sick." He did not see a nurse employed by the jail's contractor, Quality Correctional Health Care, until two days later. The nurse prescribed Reed ibuprofen and sent him back to his cell.

"All you had to do was look at me and tell that I was severely sick," Reed said.

Reed's jail records show he saw jail nurses four more times over the next five days with the same symptoms. On the morning of February 24, Reed's chart reveals officers told the nurse he had been "lying on the ground arching his back. His eyes were rolling back." They told the nurse it appeared he was having a seizure.

The nurse made a note on Reed's chart that he could not give a urine sample and wrote "inmate placed in observation cell on a mat on the floor. Will continue to monitor and attempt to obtain urine specimen."

"If they saw me, my eyes were so swelled out of my head that I couldn't hardly shut my eyelids," Reed said. "You know something's wrong with somebody when they're like that."

"When people start to develop red-flag signs like blurry vision or the lights bothering your eye...those are the kind of headache symptoms that should be evaluated on a very urgent basis," Dr. Rasnake said.

Reed's medical records show he didn't see a doctor until the night of February 24 when deputies took him to the Sweetwater Hospital emergency room for a CAT Scan. There, a doctor diagnosed Reed with sinusitis, prescribed amoxicillin, and sent him back to the jail.

Two days later, deputies took Reed for outside medical care once again. Records show he was already blind when doctors admitted him to Park West Medical Center in Knoxville early on February 27. There, a doctor eventually diagnosed him with Cryptococcal Meningitis.

"For almost two and a half weeks, we didn't know if he was going to live," Reed's mother Deborah Miller said. 

The disease didn't take his life but it did take his sight. Dr. Rasnake says it's hard to determine when or where a person gets infected. Still, Reed believes his disabilities are the result of not getting adequate medical treatment at the jail.

"Something needs to be done so this don't happen to anybody else," he said.

Alex Friedman is the associate director for the Human Rights Defense Center based in Nashville. He spent a decade in Tennessee facilities for crimes like armed robbery. Now he's an inmate advocate pushing for reform. 

"The for-profit nature of our medical care system in prisons and jails means that medical decisions are not always being made based on what a doctor thinks is needed or required," Friedman said.

Although Monroe County authorities released Reed shortly after his diagnosis, while in custody Reed's medical expenses for outside health care add up to nearly $300,000. That does not include charges from the jail's health care provider. Tennessee taxpayers will foot those bills. 

Friedman says no one tracks cases of alleged inadequate medical care in jails, but believes stories like Reed's are more common than not. 

10News asked Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens for a tour of the inside of the jail. He denied the request. 

We were able to obtain the jail's state inspection records from the Tennessee Corrections Institute. For the past five years, the facility failed its initial surprise inspections because of overcrowding and cleanliness issues. It passed an announced second inspection each time. 

Today, Reed's headaches are gone, and he's learning how to live with less independence. 

"I'm pretty much serving a lifetime sentence now," Reed said.

After spending two months in the hospital and another six with his family in Detroit, Reed returned home to East Tennessee a few weeks ago. He's adjusting to life as a father and a husband with disabilities.

Reed says his hope for healing, and the hearts of family keep him strong. He remains on powerful antibiotics until February 2013 to make sure all the fungus in his body is killed. He also plans to take legal action against the jail and health care provider, which is another cost that could end up on the backs of taxpayers. 

Again, there's no easy way to track these kinds of cases through a state system. 

10News reached out to the Monroe County sheriff, and the CEO of the health care contractor for the jail to take part in this story. Both declined to be interviewed.

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