Thursday, November 9, 2017

Nov 9 - The Eyeglasses Saga of 2017

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Today’s blog post continues the theme of the prison mantra “there’s a form for that,” with the brand new element of “no one actually knows how anything works.” In fact, Clayton Allison has discovered throughout his time served that the requirement of a form is so much of an expectation, it’s often quoted even when it’s not true. Clayton’s 2017 saga of how to obtain new eyeglasses is the prime example.

In June 2017, shortly after the Summer Festival and Father’s Day events were held at GCCC, Clayton broke the pair of glasses he had been using since first arriving at the prison. He accidentally sat on them while they were up in his bunk, and they were so spectacularly broken that there was no chance of wearing them again. He disposed of them before realizing what a monumental effort would be required to obtain a new pair.

Getting a New Prescription

The prison allows sentenced inmates to have access to an eye exam once every two years; except in instances where their existing eyewear has been damaged beyond use. Upon submitting the appropriate request by paperwork, Clayton was soon scheduled for an eye examination with the approved vendor – The Eye Guys. The vendor brings all the necessary equipment and supplies directly to the prison, and conducts the eye exams on site.

The process seemed fairly simple and efficient. The Eye Guys had a stack of Offender Trust Account (OTA) forms, which an inmate uses to authorize purchases from their account, already partially filled out and available for inmates to use during their visit. They had cases of glasses for the inmates to try on; just like they would at their normal optometrist’s office.

Clayton’s primary concerns with new glasses related to durability. He wears his glasses every day. The ones he came to prison with had been a pair of flexible metal frames that he’d had since 2014. The Eye Guys encouraged him that bendable titanium, or some other form of flexible metal frame, was likely to last him the longest. This is a major issue because when a pair of glasses breaks there is a waiting period inmates must go through to obtain new ones. They can’t simply walk out to their local eye doctor and pick out another pair.

Clayton was also interested in getting transition lenses. Sunglasses are something that any inmate can purchase through the commissary, but they’re not the form of sunglasses they can actually fit over a pair of regular glasses. The commissary does not carry an option for sunglasses for those who wear prescription glasses. The glasses Clayton had come to prison with were already transitions, so it had not been an issue for him previously. The vendor highly encouraged Clayton that transitions were also recommended, given these considerations.

The Recommendation

When all was said and done, the vendor put together a glasses package that included flexible metal frames, transition lenses, and his updated prescription. Unfortunately, Clayton was floored by the cost. Medical and vision insurance do not exist in conversations about care in a prison environment. Everything that is purchased by an inmate, must be paid for out of pocket; unless it is a direct medical expense being paid for by the prison.

The total bill Clayton was presented with was more than $550.

Clayton couldn’t imagine asking his family to pay that kind of money for his eyewear. Therefore, he asked medical for information on whether there were any other options. He was informed that The Eye Guys were only one of three approved vendors for eyeglasses; Prism Optical and 39DollarGlasses.com were also approved. Clayton was handed the basic information for the other two options, and sent back to his mod.

But Is There Really A Choice?

Shortly after Clayton’s glasses were broken, he began realizing how much he actually needed them. When he was younger, his prescription was weak enough that he could choose to go with the glasses or without, and suffer very little ill effects. However, he now began experiencing chronic migraines. He communicated that he hadn’t realized how difficult it really was for him to see without them, until he found himself continuously straining to see more clearly.

Clayton called his wife and provided her with the information on the three approved vendors. After doing some initial research, she quickly discovered that the cheapest option would be 39DollarGlasses.com. She was able to identify a set of options that matched what Clayton had been wanting to get from The Eye Guys, including: bendable titanium frames, transition lenses, and his updated prescription. Yet, they only cost $150. It took a couple of weeks for Clayton to receive through the mail all of the information she printed out. Then he attempted to order the glasses using an OTA form.

A few days later, Clayton received the OTA form back as denied for multiple reasons. All orders have to be approved and placed by the officers that work in the prison commissary. According to the commissary officer, 39DollarGlasses.com was not an approved vendor. They also said that both transition lenses and bendable metal frames were not permitted in eyeglasses orders.

Clayton was stumped.

He only knew about the existence of 39DollarGlasses.com, because the information had been provided to him by the medical staff. Bendable metal frames and transition lenses were not only offered, but recommended, by The Eye Guys. He wasn’t sure how to proceed.

What Now?

He submitted a Request For Information (RFI) form to medical, asking for some kind of documentation that confirmed that 39DollarGlasses.com was an approved vendor. Medical seemed shocked that Clayton was attempting to submit an order for glasses on his own at all, because they believed he was not supposed to have been given his prescription. It had simply been handed to him in the middle of the appointment. However, it was also communicated to him that medical was incredibly frustrated with the commissary staff about the glasses ordering process in general, and had plans to talk to facility administrators about sorting out the problem.

With the assistance of his wife, and a random CO who was observing the process from the sidelines, Clayton was soon able to confirm that 39DollarGlasses.com was, in fact, an approved vendor. He was also able to obtain grievance paperwork, which another inmate had filed, which indicated that transition lenses were allowable for purchase. He wasn’t sure what the problem was with the frames, but the documentation he’d received back said specifically that “titanium” frames were not allowed. Therefore, Clayton’s wife went back on the website to try and find a pair of metal frames that were not flexible or titanium to use in the order instead. Then he resubmitted the order.

Does Anyone Really Know How This Works?

Through the attempts to navigate this process, it appeared that glasses ordering became a major topic of conversation among the staff. Someone in commissary had communicated that they were going to talk to administrators about the aspects of the order that were and were not allowed. Medical staff had communicated that they were going to talk to administrators about the confusion with commissary, and the appropriate methods of ordering. By the time Clayton received his next denial, stating the transition lenses and metal frames were not allowed, a new memo had come out from the Superintendent himself; posted to every mod in the facility.

The memo detailed specific instructions for glasses ordering.

Sort of.

It declared that both transition lenses, and metal frames of any kind whatsoever were both prohibited from any glasses order. Additionally, inmates were not allowed to order glasses that were more than $100 in value. Inmates were only allowed to order glasses with plastic frames, and with the cheapest form of plastic lenses available on the market. Lastly, family members were not allowed to order inmate glasses for any reason. Orders by family members would promptly be rejected.

The memo was equally explanatory and disorienting.

Clayton had previously been informed by multiple staff that family members were allowed to order inmates glasses from the outside, or inmates could order them themselves. He had been electing to order it from his side because there was money on his books left over from his birthday that allowed him to afford the expense. He was surprised to find that yet another aspect of the ordering process was being changed from the instructions he had originally been given.

At this point, Clayton had been without glasses for two months. He was suffering chronic migraines, difficulty sleeping, and had injured himself numerous times while working in the kitchen. He was becoming desperate, but loathed the idea of ending up with a pair of the ugly coke-bottle glasses provided for indigent inmates. He was also sure he didn’t even qualify to receive them.

So, he tried for round three.

Now They’re Just Throwing Paperwork Away…

It took more time for Clayton’s wife to get him the information through the mail on a decent pair of basic black plastic frames with the cheapest lenses offered by the vendor. Once he received the information, he attempted placing a new order. He was very careful to package up every element of paperwork he could imagine he would need, including: a stamped envelope, and OTA form, and RFI form explaining what he wished to order, and the information about the vendor.

Weeks went by, and Clayton never heard a word back.

Normally, inmates are always supposed to hear back on paperwork in one way or another. If the request is being denied, they’re supposed to receive back official word stating so on the paperwork that was submitted. In this case, Clayton simply wasn’t hearing back at all. He eventually, after a couple of weeks, submitted another RFI requesting information on what happened to his request. However, that RFI was never returned to him either.

As far as we understand, all of these latest requests simply made their way into the circular file.

Only One Option Left

After weeks had gone by with no word on the glasses Clayton was attempting to order, Clayton’s wife had finally had enough. She decided to order the exact same pair of glasses, with the exact same attributes, from the website herself. They would be shipped directly to Clayton at the facility. They decided, because all other options have been exhausted, there was nothing else left to try. If the glasses ended up ultimately rejected, they would begin a battle on the outside.

On October 23rd, his wife’s order finally arrived at the prison. He was immediately told that the glasses would be rejected because family members were not allowed to order glasses on behalf of the inmates.

Clayton submitted grievance paperwork, asking either for the glasses to be given to him, or for someone at the facility to actually answer his questions on glasses ordering; which he detailed out in an extensively long list. Surprisingly, the staff member in charge of processing the grievances responded to Clayton immediately. He called Clayton in to discuss the issue with him face-to-face the very next morning.

Finally Some Answers

During the convoluted conversation, the staff member explained to Clayton once again that family members were under no circumstances allowed to order glasses on behalf of inmates. However, Clayton explained the extreme lengths he had gone to himself, over four months at this point, to try and order them on his own. He explained each stage where he had been shut down, and the various reasons he had been given. He additionally explained that there was no procedure, or specific set of instructions provided to inmates on how they were supposed to accomplish this process.

The staff member indicated that he believed the problem boiled down to, you guessed it, “there’s a form for that.” He said there was a specific order form that had to be used for 39DollarGlasses.com orders. Clayton explained his confusion at the possibility of using an order form for 39DollarGlasses.com. In all the research his wife had done, the website did not list any information about item numbers or product codes that could be used to list on an order form. Additionally, he did not believe there was a catalog available to browse through. The officer insisted that, indeed, there was an order form and catalog, and he would personally bring them to Clayton by the end of the day.

At this point, it was decided that the glasses Clayton’s wife had already ordered and had shipped to the facility, would be mailed back to her. The staff member suggested that she pursue getting a refund. She was, of course, furious at the entire series of events, and disbelieved she would actually be able to return the item that had been purchased.

Or Not…

Later that day, and before Clayton even had the opportunity to fully explain the conversation to his wife, he was pulled into yet another meeting. Apparently, after doing additional research into the subject, the officer explained that his previous beliefs about how the process of glasses ordering worked were, in fact, incorrect.

When he went to find the appropriate order form and catalog for 39DollarGlasses.com, he instead found that there wasn’t one. Neither existed.

Confused, he then attempted to determine how inmates were ordering from that particular vendor. What he discovered was nothing shy of hilarious. 39DollarGlasses.com is an approved vendor for the facility for FAMILY ORDERS ONLY. Inmates have never had a way to directly order from this vendor. They have always been intended exclusively as a family resource.

Confused by this new revelation, he looked further into the procedures. He explained to Clayton that he had discovered that glasses were classified as prosthetic in policy; which is apparently a category that family members are ALWAYS allowed to order on behalf of an inmate. GCCC is not supposed to prohibit family members from ordering glasses for their loved ones. Yet, because of the faulty information inside of the Superintendent’s memo, it is unclear how many sets of glasses they may have already turned away which family members were attempting to order, and had to absorb the cost for.

FINALLY, A Breakthrough

After discovering this information, the staff were quick to communicate to Clayton that his wife’s 
order still had to meet the other requirements listed out in the Superintendent’s memo. Clayton emphasized – and the invoice proved - that the glasses ordered had been: plastic frames; with non-transition, standard, cheap plastic lenses; and hadn’t even totaled $50 in value with shipping.

It was then agreed that Clayton would be allowed to receive the glasses his wife ordered as soon as they had been processed through property. We are happy to announce that he actually received them two days later. He is no longer plagued by headaches and eye strain, and is amazed at how much he can see that he didn’t realize he couldn’t before.

This blog post probably would’ve been written because the entire series of events is so absolutely ridiculous that, if nothing else, the sheer stupidity of it all should provide a fair amount of humor. 
However, it also emphasizes a much more critical point.

Even the People In Charge Don’t Know the Rules

Alaska’s prisons represent the most extreme end of the spectrum of bureaucracy. There is a policy, procedure, and/or form for just about any action that ever needs to be taken inside of the facility. You not only have to know which forms to fill out for which processes, you also have to know which boxes to put which forms in, and which departments will eventually process them.

When you run into problems, you have to know whether to approach the department that rejected you, or whether you need to file different paperwork with a different department to try and seek a resolution to your problem. The staff members that handle these elements of paperwork are so narrowly pigeonholed that they rarely ever see the full process. They simply assume that what is written into policy, or more often their personal opinion of a policy they may have never actually read, is trucking along just fine. They may not see the hordes of frustrated people who were being denied access to the things that they need because they cannot overcome the barrier that the paperwork and bureaucracy form.

When attempting to summarize this problem, Clayton eloquently labeled it "the draconian obtuseness of prison paperwork and policy that is intended for use by a predominantly uneducated and/or illiterate population." It is ironic that the processes which need to be used by a largely under-educated, uneducated, or even illiterate population is being devised and crafted by a traditionally well educated staff and administration who do not even see the pitfalls they are creating. Even worse, staff who see them struggling act as if their non-compliance with a process they often don't understand is somehow justification for ignoring their plight. 

Why else would official paperwork, which requires official documented response, be making its way into the circular file simply because it is being filed in the wrong box? Clayton has an Associates Degree and was almost unable to leap over this hurdle with four months of effort. 

Clayton and his wife have had instances with multiple Superintendents at GCCC where they didn’t seem to know the content of statewide policy, or how it interacted with or even contradicted the policy they were writing at their own facility. Other staff members at the facility are often even further removed from those policies, and have even less understanding of them. This is not surprising when realizing that the administrative review of the Department of Corrections from two years ago specifically highlighted that policies at the statewide level had gone years without ever being updated or revised. However, these contradictions frequently mean that individual facilities are prohibiting inmates from having access to things that the Department of Corrections itself would not prohibit inmates from having access to.

It also creates the opportunity for inmates to be exploited.

For example, if Clayton had been able and willing to drop more than $550 during his initial visit with The Eye Guys, he could have gotten bendable titanium frames with transition lens glasses nearly immediately. The paperwork being processed by the vendor on-site is going directly through medical, without ever interacting with commissary. Therefore, it is never being reviewed for all of these additional restrictive elements that other glasses orders are being subjected to.

Less than three weeks ago, another inmate that Clayton works with had walked into the kitchen with brand-new transition lens glasses and flexible metal frames. He had simply been willing to pay the piper. Because Clayton had not, he ended up in this endless limbo, unable to get access to the basic thing he was trying to order for his own health and safety. In any other environment, the scenario would be called a racket.

Still Asking For Clarification

Clayton was extremely relieved after he learned that he would finally be able to get access to the glasses that were ordered for him. However, after this long of a battle, that was no longer the only recourse that was needed. He attempted to emphasize to the staff that the other inmates in the facility also needed to know this information. The memo that had come out from the Superintendent was incorrect. 

Family members are supposed to be able to order glasses for inmates, and should know that 39DollarGlasses.com is the appropriate resource. He requested that this information be posted in all of the mods, along with a detailed clarification on how the glasses ordering process actually works.
It is unclear at this time whether the staff at the prison will elect to post such information for the general population.

Additional questions have arisen since then about inmate contact lenses. They can receive a prescription in their appointment for contacts. They can buy lens cases and contact solution from the commissary. However, the general belief among the staff is that contact lenses are now allowed for purchase. But they’re also defined as a prosthetic. So, really?


Our best guess… no one actually knows the real answer. 

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