For years, I resisted having all my teeth replaced with dentures. The eventual outcome, however, was dictated by toothaches and swollen gums. The dentist convinced me to go through with it with promises of vanity and better health.
In January 2018, I began the process of having all my teeth pulled and replaced with dentures, even though several people told me that they had to wait almost a year to get their new teeth — and pay $200-$300.
That may not seem like much. But for me, it was a year’s pay. You see, I am in prison. After paying restitution and fines, I earn $25.40 per month at my prison job. I am not alone. Every year, thousands of people in prison struggle to pay healthcare costs while typically earning 8 to 37 cents an hour at their prison jobs.
My dentures cost $255, plus $5 for each visit to pull teeth.
The first visit resulted in getting five teeth pulled, which made eating more difficult. I’m physically small, about 5’3″ and around 125 pounds. Dealing with hunger has always been a challenge. During my second visit, around the end of May, all my molars were pulled.
I had lost so much weight that I became anemic. I could see the gauntness in photos, which became depressing.
One morning, I fainted.
A battery of examinations and medical tests led to iron pills for about three months. The third teeth-pulling session was around mid-August. I signed a trust withdrawal for $255 to be charged to my prison account.
Sitting in that dental chair, I thought about the year’s pay it would take to stop the drooling from my missing front teeth.
I talked to friends about what it feels like to have no molars, difficulty chewing, waiting a year for your dentures and being broke the entire time.
In early November, on my fourth trip to the dentist, I finished all but four teeth on my lower jaw. I was very emotional because I knew that even after getting the dentures, I couldn’t buy the cleanser or the adhesive to maintain them.
Then, in March 2019, surprisingly, all of the money paid for my teeth popped up on my trust account.
A couple of days later, I went to the dentist and my new teeth were there. Subsequently, I found out prison officials decided to end medical co-pays as well as stop charging prisoners for medical appliances.
Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 45, by Assemblymember Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, putting into law a prohibition against charging co-pays for medical visits in prisons and jails.
A $5 co-pay may not seem like much, but for me and other incarcerated people, it can represent a week’s pay.
I’ve had my new set of teeth for about eight months. Today, my friends compliment me on my smile. I have put on a little weight and my health is much improved. And I appreciate that the governor and the Legislature have ended the $5 co-pay. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through the emotional and financial roller coaster that I did to get dental care while in prison.
Juan Haines is an award-winning journalist and senior editor of the award-winning, inmate-run newspaper San Quentin News. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
Opinion: When a co-pay for dental work meant a week’s work