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New Report Reveals Startling Disparities in Prison Dental Care

The oral health needs of American prisoners are not being adequately met, according to a report in the American Journal of Public Health. The report highlights a strong correlation between poor oral health among inmates and higher rates of chronic illness among the same population.

"The thing we are seeing, even among the non-prison population, is that when you neglect your oral health, it can have catastrophic effects on your entire body," says Dr. Michele Simpson, a dentist based in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Recent studies have found links between periodontal disease and everything from diabetes to heart disease and even certain forms of cancer.

"The body is a network of systems that all work together, so naturally if one area is not well, it’s very likely to affect at least some of the others," she says.

Researchers have offered varied opinions on how to correct the dental disparities in the prison community, but they are quick to note that inmate rights aren’t really a popular topic. As a result, clinicians providing care to inmates often face an uphill battle when trying to expand their scope of care. In the end, many inmates get the very basic level of care available, which is often no care at all, or at least no care until there’s already a problem.

"Many inmates don’t get to see a dentist until there’s a problem causing a significant amount of pain. By that point it could be too late to save the tooth, and the inmate could be looking at losing teeth, tissue or even bone," says Simpson.

Researchers have proposed prisons expand their dental programs and create a medical registry for inmates to better help track their medical and dental care history while incarcerated. They also suggest increasing recruiting efforts to students to attract more practitioners to prison medical services, which is naturally an uphill battle. Aside from convincing prisons to increase their spending on inmates, there’s also the issue of convincing a dentist to even consider the job.

"There’s a high level of fear involved in working in prisons. Every dentist wants to provide care and help people, but not many people want to work somewhere that they feel unsafe," Simpson says.

In the meantime, prison-rights activists and dental-health researchers will continue to lobby prisons and local governments to expand funding to include better oral health care for prisoners. According to Simpson, the benefits are extensive.

"Just like with the rest of us, preventative care saves money. If you’re catching a cavity before the tooth needs to be pulled, or an infection before you end up having to remove a portion of the patient’s jaw, or put that person on insulin for the rest of their life, you’re saving a lot more money than you would be if you incarcerated them for 10 years and didn’t let them see the dentist until they needed that kind of serious work," she says.

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