By Christopher Zoukis
For the past year I have been seeking meaningful dental care. This isn’t to say that I’ve only been seeking it for the past year, but that the current matter has been on my plate for the past year. Thus, my teeth hurt.
The story starts in 2009. Five years ago I sought, and failed to obtain, meaningful dental care from the FCI Petersburg Health Services Department. The sole dentist for the federal prison — which houses approximately 1,800 prisoners — was being a real pain. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays prisoners were directed to present to Dental Sick Call between the hours of 6:30 AM and 6:45 AM to have their emergency dental care needs addressed. Only the first 15 prisoners to arrive were even offered this option.
On several occasions I managed to be one of the lucky 15. After filling out the Dental Triage Form I was escorted to the Dental Services area of the Health Services building and told to sit in a dentist’s chair. Once there the dentist, a woman who is still employed here at FCI Petersburg, would ask which specific tooth had a problem. I would explain that there were several and that I would appreciate her taking note of the problem teeth and adding me to the list of patients to be treated for the various problems. Unfortunately, FCI Petersburg does not allow for this type of regular dental service. Instead, prisoners are required to be their own dental professionals and locate trouble teeth and request care for the specific trouble tooth.
Not only would the dentist not assist me in locating the teeth which required work (i.e., teeth which have cavities and such), but she required me to present to Dental Sick Call for each specific tooth which I thought warranted attention. For the next two weeks I sprinted up to Dental Sick Call and attempted to be one of the lucky 15. I succeeded several times. When I would go back in to the Dental Services area, I would point out a new tooth which had some sort of blemish on it. Naturally, I’d have to use my book light to try to locate problem areas since the dentist would not do so. Thank God for Mighty Bright book lights!
The problem with the morning Dental Sick Call was that it was, depending on whom you ask, the only means by which to be added to the routine dental care waiting list. So, I would show up, be told to point out the problematic tooth, and be told that it was not a dental emergency, but that I would be placed on the waiting list for routine dental care. Some would say that the submission of a cop-out (an Inmate Request to Staff form) would do the trick. Others would say that an electronic cop-out (a cop-out submitted via the TRULINCS monitored computer system) was the way to do it. But with no true response or direction from FCI Petersburg staff, we were left to guess how to obtain treatment. Naturally, there is no system in place to alert prisoners when they are added to the dental care waiting list or if they are, in fact, on the waiting list. Delightful! Government at its best.
As the problems persisted, I decided that it was about time to become a bit more forceful. I filed an administrative remedy (i.e., a grievance) and had my desired remedy (meaningful dental care) repeatedly sidestepped by the administration at FCI Petersburg. Eventually I sent a letter to then Senator Jim Webb. Webb’s office was responsive. They mailed a copy of my letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Central Office and asked for the matter to be looked into. Shortly thereafter I was called to Health Services to sign a medical records release form for Senator Webb’s office.
In my opinion, due to the pressure, I was called to FCI Petersburg’s Health Services Department and treated. The dentist spent a few sessions taking care of cavities and such. Meaningful care was provided. Sadly, down the line, the level of care which was provided due to political pressure did not continue.
In early 2012, I submitted an Electronic Request to Staff concerning new dental issues. After waiting several weeks I sent a follow-up email. Their response: we do not accept Electronic Request to Staff emails. If you have a problem, present to the Emergency Dental Sick Call Sign-up. When I did, I was told that my complaints were not of an emergency nature. I was placed on the waiting list.
Subsequently I ran into disciplinary issues concerning my prison education advocacy. These issues landed me in the hole for a period of 5 months. While in the hole I submitted more requests for dental care. I was seen only once, and that was for a broken tooth. While being treated for the broken tooth I was informed that my other requests had been discarded since I no longer qualified for dental care. Evidently, prisoners in the hole must wait 1-year before being allowed to see a dentist for “routine care,” care which includes problems such as chipped teeth and cavities. Naturally, it would have been nice if they had bothered to stop by my cell in the hole to inform me of this. Instead, they allowed me to submit numerous requests without explanation of why I was being denied treatment. After five months in the Special Housing Unit I was released. Several months later all of the disciplinary findings were overturned and my record was cleared. Still no dental care.
After I got out of the hole, I made numerous requests for dental care. I repeatedly was told that I was on the waiting list. During this time I became so frustrated with this level of deliberate indifference that I, again, filed an administrative remedy concerning the lack of meaningful dental care. I also submitted letters to Congressman Robert “Bobby” Scott and Senator Tim Kaine. Thus far, the administrative remedies have been blanket denials of wrongdoing. All of which have said that I have been provided with adequate treatment (ignoring active dental complaints, which have been present for over a year) and that I’m advised to present to Dental Sick Call for treatment (where I’m told that I’m already on the waiting list from early 2012).
As for the letters to my representatives, both Senator Kaine and Representative Scott have sent letters to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on my behalf. So too have my attorneys, Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. All have requested copies of my medical records and all have been furnished with said copies. Still, no meaningful dental care has been provided. In fact, I will be submitting an appeal to the BOP’s Central Office (via a BP-11) in the next several days since the appeal to the BOP’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Office (BP-10) was denied.
Dental complaints are often brushed off — no pun intended — by those who see them as taking a backseat to traditional medical care. People think, oh my, he has a cavity, the poor inmate. They feel as though dental problems are not as serious as traditional medical issues, and they might be right . . . to a point. But I don’t see this as a have-it-this-way-or-that-way type of thing. I see both dental and traditional medical care as being required components of a holistic, and expected, medical treatment plan. If one is missing, then the equation is not complete. Just because an individual is incarcerated doesn’t mean that they can’t brush their teeth or take vitamins. And just because it’s inconvenient doesn’t mean that legitimate medical complaints can be ignored. In my mind, delayed care is denied care. And delaying a medical treatment for over a year because it’s inconvenient to the health care provider is plainly unacceptable. In fact, it’s worse. It’s deliberate indifference; a term all prison medical personnel know well.
Let us know your thoughts. Should federal prisoners be provided access to meaningful dental care? Should dental care be deemed as important as traditional medical care? Have you or someone you know had troubles with obtaining dental care while in jail or prison? Leave your response below in the comments section to contribute to this important discussion. As a reward for commenting, we’ll send you a name brand toothbrush if you want one. This is more than most prisoners can hope for.