Adequate dental care is frequently lacking in prisons and contributes to problems in rehabilitation and failures upon release, according to reporting by Justin Stabley in the PBS NewsHour.
The state of dental care for the incarcerated is similar across the country and usually means extended periods of waiting that end up causing long-term damage. Prisons will often wait until an incarcerated person’s problem tooth has turned into an emergency before beginning treatment, even if patients have abscesses and swollen faces, said the report.
Nanete Sorich, the public affairs manager for Pioneer Human Services, a reentry services provider for people leaving prison said, “Basically the answer is, ‘You have a toothache? Yank it.’”
Prison dentists may provide annual cleanings, but it can take months before a more extensive procedure receives authorization.
The story cited the case of Eugene Youngblood, whose two front teeth suffered damaged in a car crash at age 16. Two years later, he ended up in prison with a life sentence, the article reported.
During a routine prison dental checkup, he received a root canal with a promise that he would get implants or dentures in the future. Over the years, changing prison dental policies prevented him from receiving implants or dentures, which the new policies considered “cosmetic” procedures. His two front teeth eventually gave out.
“It was horrible; it became a problem to eat,” said Youngblood.
Dental procedures approved are often a quick or temporary fix. Some prisons do not even perform annual checkups due to staff shortages.
Addressing the issue through the courts has had moderate success. Alison Hardy of the Prison Law Office, which does nonprofit advocacy for incarcerated persons, sued California for better dental care in its prisons, according to PBS.
“One of the biggest barriers that we found to the delivery of health care was that they were not paying their dentists enough,” said Hardy in reference to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Hardy said CDCR eventually increased pay for dentists and made other changes that improved dental care, which led to a withdrawal of the lawsuit. Hardy pointed out that some dental problems, such as orthodontic care, still persist.
People with substance use disorders whose dental issues go untreated sometimes relapse in their addiction because drugs are a way to cope with pain, said the article. Serious dental problems often plague drug users, especially methamphetamine users, who tend to drink sugary, acidic sodas. Poor oral care also damages self-confidence and self-esteem.
“There are a lot of things that happen [to incarcerated people] that, in our minds, makes us feel like we’re worthless,” said Youngblood, who now has employment with a dental plan after regaining his freedom. The co-pay for the dental procedure for the restoration of his two front teeth took him nearly a year to repay.
Dental damage from poor care in prison can make it harder for the formerly incarcerated to find jobs.
Youngblood pointed out that many people associate missing teeth with a history of violence or fighting. “It’s like having a tattoo on your face,” he said.