‘The dental department is going to lose a wonderful dentist’
By Eddie Herena
Making people smile is something Jerry Morley is good at; it is something he does for a living. He is not a therapist, and he does not work in a pharmacy. He is San Quentin’s longtime dentist, and he is retiring at the end of this month.
The 69-year-old dentist, whose hands are hardly idle, has worked for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for the past 20 years. He spent 19 of those years at San Quentin, where he became known as Death Row’s dentist because his dental chair was often occupied by condemned men.
Over the years Dr. Morley has also gained a reputation among the prison’s general population for not being like typical CDCR dentists who Edgar Salazar, a prisoner serving life for a 1995 murder, describes as “evil tooth fairies” who are “stingy with the gauze.”
Although numerous prisoners share Salazar’s sentiment, Dr. Morley is in a different category.
“I’d like to dispel the rumor that all we do is ‘pull’ teeth,” said Dr. Morley, with pen in hand and eyes roaming over a patient’s chart. “We fix and adjust partials and dentures, conduct annual examinations and do fillings.”
He and his colleagues do a wide spectrum of work under CDCR policies and procedures, but their efforts are often undermined by the stigma their patients attach to the healthcare providers.
“He leaves us better than he found us”
Even though Dr. Morley has pulled his share of teeth over the years, he has also “put some back,” said patient Rodney Baylas, who smiles with confidence because of the partial denture he received.
It is common at San Quentin to see toothless men. Many have a long history of drug use, which often results in the loss of teeth. In addition, prison can be a violent place, so you never know whether an individual got popped in the mouth. Regardless of why people lost a tooth, Dr. Morley has given their smiles back to plenty of them.
“He leaves us better than he found us,” said Richard Tully, a man who has been on Death Row for more than two decades. “The words ‘going to the dentist’ normally generate feelings of fear and dread, but the extremely sharp and unkind instruments are wielded with skill and gentleness when in Dr. Morley’s hands,” Tully added.
The high praise he receives from most of his patients is mirrored by his colleagues, who benefit from having Dr. Morley around because he increases the quality of their own work. Soon they will miss that benefit.
“I’ve learned so much from Dr. Morley,” said S. Cooley, one of six San Quentin dental providers. “He has made me a better dentist,”
Debbie Vasquez Green, a longtime dental assistant who recently retired, expressed similar feelings: “The dental department is going to lose a wonderful dentist.”
Dr. Morley started his dental career in 1973, after graduating from dental school at Creighton University. The same year he joined the U.S. Navy, where he served as captain before retiring in 1996. Only then did he join CDCR at Valley State Prison for Women in the Central Valley before making the Bay Area his home and the people of San Quentin his extended family.
The doctor’s departure is “going to be a sad day for us and great day for him,” said fellow colleague Dr. Eifert.
George Greenwood, a nine-year patient of Dr. Morley, said that the veteran dentist made him feel like he was more than a prison number.
“His care is of the utmost professional quality,” said Ali R. Muhammad, whose past dental experiences both outside and inside prison walls were traumatic. Bottom line, Dr. Morley cares, and people like him “are hard to come by.”
“I don’t make any distinctions about my patients,” Dr. Morley said. “I treat them with their best interest at heart.”
For prisoner James Benson, that makes all the difference because, according to him, healthcare in prison lacks “care.”
It might seem unbelievable that someone could have the type of impact that Dr. Morley has had, but the people who have had bad experiences with dentists while incarcerated know when a gem is in their presence.
“I’d like to think that people will miss you for the work you have done,” Dr. Morley said.
The people at San Quentin are those people.