Texas Prisons Routinely Refuse Dentures To Inmates Without Teeth

Texas prison doctors state chewing is not a “medically necessary function” and mechanically blended diet is actually a better solution than the mastication and chewing process.”


It seems Texas prison care is at an all time low.

Inmates in Texas prisons, who have lost most of their teeth, are routinely denied dentures, because, apparently, according to the prison system, chewing is not a “medically necessary” function. Instead, prisoners are offered cafeteria food that is blended.

Dozens of toothless prisoners who are unable to get dentures, told the Houston Chronicles they had their teeth removed in prison with a promise they would get dental prosthetics. Unfortunately, most of the time, the promise was not fulfilled. Other times, they would often be provided cheap dentures that broke with slight pressure. Many of the inmates were also told they cannot get dentures unless they become underweight or have other medical conditions, at which time dental prosthetics may be deemed as necessary.

In 2016, Texas prison medical staff provided only 71 dentures to a prison population of over 149,000, many of whom were elderly, came from disadvantaged backgrounds or had a history of drug abuse or poor dental care. That’s a huge decrease from 15 years ago when 1,000 inmates were provided with expensive dentures.

Inmates who are left without teeth have to make do with pureed food or soak solid food in water to make it soft. They have complained of sore mouth, bleeding gums and choking.

Texas prison health policy is set by Correctional Managed Health Care Committee, a nine-member committee, which include doctors and officials from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. The policy states that only prisoners with less than seven teeth be considered for dentures and even then, their need to be other considerations that merit the prosthetics.

“The patients that we’re really focused on are ones that truly have other challenges,” said Dr. Owen Murray, the University of Texas Medical Branch’s vice president of offender services, “like patients with head and neck cancer that have had treatment that have changed their construction in that area and then dentures become more about preserving the structure.”

Murray claims that it is a “misunderstanding” that people without teeth are unable to process food and said that a “mechanically blended diet is actually a better solution than the mastication and chewing process.”

Not all states have a prison dental policy like Texas. California, which hosts the next largest prison population in the country and has a prison health care which is under a partial government oversight, provided 4,818 compete and partial dentures in 2016 to its inmate, despite the fact Texas has over 19,000 more inmates than the Golden State.

New York also routinely gives out dentures to its inmates and Ohio depends on its inmate-made dental prosthetics.

Texas was not always so miserly with its dentures. In the past, inmates even made the dentures in-house, like in Ohio currently. However, in 2003, it was eliminated for various reasons. In 2004, Texas ordered 1,295 dentures for prisoners. But in 2005, the number drastically fell to 518 and in 2006, to just 258. Since 2010, fewer than 100 dentures have been provided to inmates each year.

One of the biggest concerns is, as always, the cost. According to the Healthcare Bluebook, top or bottom dentures cost a minimum of $1,000. In a recent Texas jail budget report, the state would need $281 million for the 2020-2021 budget cycle to satisfy the dental demand.

Regardless of how costly the prosthetics are, a 1976 Supreme Court decision found that prison staff is only required to avoid showing “deliberate indifference” to “serious medical needs,” a policy which is very open to interpretation. In the case of Texas criminal justice system, as mentioned above, not having teeth is not considered a “serious medical condition.”

Consequently, it doesn’t seem Texas will be changing its denture policy anytime soon. In the unlikely case that it were reviewed again in the near future, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice can’t change it unilaterally without the Correctional Managed Health Care Committee.

If inmates want to see a reform in their denture policy, a class-action lawsuit is the only way, a lawyer said.

Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

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