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Iowa State Pays Woman Who Blinded Herself in Prison

Iowa authorities have reached a legal settlement with Shayne Eggen, a mentally ill woman who used her finger to blind herself while she was in prison.

The state paid $141,533 last month to Eggen. The money settles allegations that instead of giving Eggen proper treatment, prison authorities repeatedly locked her in solitary confinement for behaviors caused by schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Advocates for the mentally ill say Eggen’s case illustrates how the United States misuses prisons to warehouse people who need psychiatric care. Her family says that when she blinded herself in 2002, she was confined alone at the state women’s prison in Mitchellville.

Eggen, 45, has struggled for decades with mental illnesses. Her supporters say that before going to prison, she was repeatedly released from mental-health facilities without proper follow-up care.

She was arrested several times, including for setting her Decorah apartment on fire during an aborted suicide attempt in 2000. After that arrest, she started blinding herself by gouging out her right eye while being held in the Winneshiek County Jail. She explained to relatives that “demons” inside her head told her to do it. She said the demons quoted a Bible passage: “If thy eye offends thee, pluck it out.”

Eggen’s family filed a federal lawsuit against the state in 2004, saying the prison system deprived Eggen of her constitutional rights, including the right to avoid cruel and unusual punishment. The suit said prison leaders failed to properly train employees and failed to discipline officers who were “deliberately indifferent to persons in need of medical assistance and medical attention.”

The settlement was reached after several rounds of negotiations among lawyers for the state and Eggen’s family.

After she took out her left eye at Mitchellville, Eggen became a prominent symbol of problems with the nation’s mental health care system. The state ombudsman’s office suggested changes to prison policies based on her case and several others. A nationally promoted book, “Crazy in America,” used her tragedy to illustrate how prisons are misused as psychiatric facilities.

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