When I was a little girl, I loved going to the dentist. I know that makes me a bit odd, but I had a nice, friendly dentist, and visiting him got me out of school for a few hours every six months. I was lucky to have a mom who took dental health seriously, and she made sure I had healthy teeth and gums by scheduling dentist appointments twice a year. When I got braces at the age of 13, she added some orthodontist appointments to my schedule every couple of months.
So, when I got to prison I had healthy, straight teeth, but I did have some gum issues because of genetics and my tobacco use. Unfortunately, I discovered right away that getting to the dentist to take care of these issues was going to be nearly impossible.
Because many inmates have either a history of methamphetamine use or come from impoverished backgrounds with limited access to dental care, there are numerous people behind bars who have bad teeth or no teeth at all. Some of them wear full or partial dentures on their way into prison. But, can you wear dentures in prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
When it comes to wearing dentures, the rules vary depending on the prison. In federal prisons, inmates who enter prison with dentures are allowed to wear them, and all of the necessary tools like soaking dishes, adhesive, and cleaner are available at the commissary.
Full and partial dentures are also provided to inmates with sentences longer than three years when needed. This policy is part of the comprehensive dental treatment plan in the Bureau of Prisons. However, getting the dentures can take monthsㅡor yearsㅡbecause it is considered a low priority and it is a last resort after oral diseases have been treated.
In state prisons, the rules are all over the place. In Missouri, you are allowed to wear your dentures, and you can possibly qualify for dentures if you need them after being incarcerated. There is also denture adhesive and cleaner available at the commissary.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in many states. According to the Associated Press, many inmates in Texas prisons are denied dentures even if they don’t have teeth. In 2016, only 71 inmates received dentures in a state that has an inmate population close to 150,000.
In the state of Washington, an inmate sued the Department of Corrections over their dental policy after he was denied dentures.
If you want to get a dentist appointment in prison, good luck. In my experience, you had to be imprisoned for a minimum of six months before putting in a request for an appointment. Once a request was submitted, you were put on a waiting list and it took more than a year to get an appointment. That is apparently a short wait compared to other facilities. In California, some inmates wait as long as eight years to see a dentist.
During my four years of incarceration, I saw the dentist twice. I needed a tooth pulled, but refused the procedure because of the lack of medication or anesthesia. There was no way I was going to have dental work done without novocaine.
At his point, my teeth and gums are terrible. The correction I had from my braces is replaced by tooth gaps and broken teeth. I am still saving up to see a dentist, and I have been out of prison for two years.
Because regular-sized toothbrushes can be made into weapons, inmates are not allowed to purchase them. Instead, the commissary sells tiny toothbrushes that are about three inches long and nearly impossible to hold.
Cheap toothpaste is also available for purchase, and if there are active local charities, they will donate a, “Christmas Bag,” which might include a name-brand toothpaste. Based on past experience, I can’t tell you the wheeling and dealing that went on over tubes of toothpaste.
They did not sell traditional dental floss at the commissary, but there were tiny plastic floss loops available. However, no one used them for floss. Instead, people used them as hair ties when they got cornrows or other types of braids.
There was also cheap mouthwash available for purchase, as well as a few items needed for dentures.
How the lack of dental care makes life difficult post-prison
Because proper dental care is so hard to come by in prison, many of the inmates see their teeth and gums get progressively worse during their incarceration. This can make getting a job after an inmate’s release even more difficult than it already is because of their felon status.
Even though inmates have a constitutional right to dental care, the courts haven’t provided any guidance to prisons on what services they must offer. So, that has led to long waits and subpar care.
This also means that prison dentists will pull an inmate’s damaged teeth instead of repairing them because of the cost of procedures, like crowns and bridges. The dental care is so poor in some places that some inmates have serious issues long after their release. Poor dental care is just one more obstacle a former prisoner must overcome.
Do you think inmates should have access to proper dental care? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Dental Services https://www.bop.gov/policy/progstat/6400_003.pdf Texas prisons often deny dentures to inmates with no teeth https://www.apnews.com/31e2459c461543258af41311f1e63f74 Wash. inmate sues prison over dentures policy https://www.correctionsone.com/correctional-healthcare/articles/209064187-Wash-inmate-sues-prison-over-dentures-policy/ Another Hurdle For Former Inmates: Their Teeth https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/06/28/another-hurdle-for-former-inmates-their-teeth
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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