Just before seven teeth were yanked from his mouth, Airway Heights Corrections Center inmate Delvin Denison explained how a fresh start in his mouth could help him with a fresh start in life.
“I want false teeth because I’m done with dope,” Denison, 42, said in the prison’s dentist office. “It’s embarrassing going to apply for a job with teeth like this.”
Multiple teeth extractions like the procedure Denison had completed earlier this month have become common at state prisons where many of the inmates’ methamphetamine habits have caused their teeth to rot and break, leaving them with little more than rust-colored nubs.
“What we’re finding is that inmates who have abused meth have about eight to 10 times more seriously and hopelessly decayed teeth,” said Arnold Morton, chief of dental services for Washington prisons.
As meth abuse has soared over the past decade, prison dentists have seen an increase in severe tooth decay. About 38 percent of the state’s female prison inmates are meth abusers, Morton said. The figures for men’s lockups are lower.
Morton said dental costs have increased from an average $244 for each offender in 2001 to about $298 in 2004, with some of the increase likely from meth, he said. However, the biggest effect of meth use has been on waiting lists, which have grown to almost a year for non-emergency treatment in some prisons including Airway Heights, Morton said.
“We have not been able to increase staff because of budget restraints, and that has created long lists,” Morton said. “It’s pretty overwhelming. I don’t see that it’s gotten any better in the last couple years. If anything it’s gotten worse.”
The reasons for meth’s rapid destruction of teeth are multiple and still being studied.
Jacquelyn Smith, a dental assistant at the Community Health Association in Spokane, said mouths of meth users are robust environments for plaque multiplication. That is, in part, because of acid in the drug and dryness of their mouths.
On top of that, meth users often quench their thirst with sugary sodas and do not consistently brush and floss their teeth.
The plaque usually has an easy path to get inside their teeth because meth users often have fractures in their enamel caused by grinding, Smith said.
Eventually some of the teeth break off.
“You’ve got exposed nerves,” Smith said. “It hurts to eat, breathe, drink or sleep.”
Smith makes presentations about the effects of meth on teeth to high school students, juvenile offenders and dental students. At the health association clinic, the youngest patient she has seen with dental problems related to meth was 9 years old. Most of the users needing dentures are between 14 and 24, she said.
Dentists said they’re amazed at the rapid progression of decay.
“I’ve been a dentist for over 42 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Richard Shern, who works with Smith. “I’ve seen patients in their early 20s whose teeth are down to their gumlines.”
Denison’s extractions this month were the second time he’s had teeth pulled in prison. Before his sentence for possession of methamphetamine is up, he hopes to have his remaining teeth pulled.
He has several months left and no chance of getting dentures before he leaves. But Denison said he’s OK with gumming food and eating only soft grub until he can buy dentures outside prison.
“When people use dope, they lose a lot of their heart and their soul,” Denison said. “They don’t care what’s happening to them. It’s a wicked drug.”