Tooth for a tooth: the effects of poor dental care in California prisons


By Kritika Singh

BERKELEY – $ 10,000 – this is the amount Daniela Medina had to pay to repair years of inadequate dental care she received while incarcerated.

For Medina, a UC Berkeley alumnus and deputy director of Berkeley underground researchers (a program supporting those incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in their graduate studies), the costs of dental care after her release recalled the trauma she experienced as a dental patient in the county jail and state prison. from Valley to Chowchilla.

“My first experience there was that a friend of mine told me that she had just come out to the dentist and they told her they had to pull out a tooth, and they pulled the tooth out. nad. So I guess they pulled the one next to the one they were supposed to pull… It was my first experience there hearing about dental care so I wasn’t happy to see them [the dentists]. ”

Sadly, Medina and her friend’s experiences of dental neglect are shared by people currently and formerly incarcerated across the country. Perhaps the most frequently cited case of neglect is the tendency of dentists in prisons and prisons to pull teeth out rather than repair them with more expensive restorative procedures.

Medina also remembers this experience when she needed root canal treatment. “There’s not even an option to get a root canal … They make it very clear that you can only have a tooth pulled out.”

Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons does not explicitly ban root canals at this time, the treatment is classified as “Non-urgent dental treatment”, and can therefore take up to a year to be completed. People in prison are therefore often forced to choose their poison – wait months for root canal treatment and risk more pain, or opt for having the tooth pulled out immediately.

Even those who are willing to wait for treatment are often prevented from doing so, such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) restricted those with a plaque index greater than 20% to only emergency, urgent, interceptive care or with special needs.

“I had all my teeth pulled out except 5 or something,” said Carlin, another formerly incarcerated UC Berkeley student who says he has been in and out of prison since late 1950s. He further explained the implications of this, sharing that “It shapes your face and everything, the way you speak. Now I have a bit of lisp because I don’t have all of my teeth.

Carlin added that “Things pile up in prison. You lose a tooth, after a while you don’t care. It’s like, oh my God, why would I brush my teeth and floss if I only had 6 teeth in my mouth, you know? “

The feeling of hopelessness and discouragement described by Carlin is exacerbated by the fact that for people who wish to maintain a dental hygiene regimen, it is often impossible to do so.

Medina described how “They are like” you have to floss everyday “, [but] we don’t have dental floss. So there is that, you know. In fact, many prison systems do not allow inmates to have regular dental flossing due to fears that it could be used as a weapon. In California, the state approves instead Dental floss loops, which are designed to break easily and prevent the wire from being used for other purposes.

Carlin expressed a similar experience, sharing that “they [prisons] do not provide you with a toothbrush or toothpaste, you must buy it from the commissary. So, this could be something that some people just give up. While Carlin was fortunate enough to have a job in the prison that allowed him to buy toothpaste, he explained that other incarcerated people might not be able to do so because they are only paid a few cents an hour. In California, the minimum wage for prison jobs is a simple 8 cents per hour.

Prior to 2020, the meager payment incarcerated people received for their work also made it extremely difficult to purchase co-payment for dental care. Fortunately, this burden was lifted with the passage of Bill 45 of the Assembly, which bans all medical copayments in California jails and prisons.

Yet even without this financial burden, formerly incarcerated people continue to feel the effects of their dental treatment (or lack thereof) long after their release. Some feelings commonly shared among former incarcerates include the shame and stigma associated with explaining their incarceration to a dentist, as well as feelings of anxiety stemming from past dentist abuse.

Describing an earlier experience in which a prison dentist cut his face with the suction tool, Medina reflected on how “at the dentist, when someone takes care of your mouth and sharp objects and things, you are already nervous and want to feel comfortable with someone doing any type of procedure in your mouth. [The dentists in prisons are] very rough and just like very careless.

She added that upon her release, she was shocked to have a dental experience in which the dentists were gentle and explained their procedures to her in detail. However, Medina also wishes to have heard of organizations or individuals specializing in connecting formerly imprisoned individuals with dental care.

Referring to dental treatment for the former incarcerated, Medina explained, “I never even heard that people were helping with this. It was like a major setback for me to come home. It was so stressful for me to go through this process. Just because I was like ‘Oh my God, this never ends’, you know? Like even when you’re at home it’s like in class, it’s one thing after another, and it was just another thing that I was facing that still had to do with my incarceration.


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