The following story is part of PJP's special project, "The Graying of America’s Prisons." For this series, we curated reported stories and essays from across the country to catalyze a conversation about the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of growing old behind bars. Read all of the stories in the series here.
The wait for dentures in prison can be months to years long. On the plus side, you get really interesting blended food to eat while you wait.
I didn’t put “living in prison” on my bucket list of things I wanted to do before I die, but here I am.
I’ve been incarcerated since November 2016. In April, I turned 71. I’ve got scraggly, long gray hair with some significant balding and a 20-inch braided goatee. I look like Gandalf on a bad day.
I’m pretty sure I’m aging the same as I did on the streets, but I have experienced a medical saga that’s more unique to prison. It began two years ago when I was incarcerated at the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif.
Just after the COVID-19 pandemic began, I had only eight teeth left in my lower jaw. I’ve always had problems with my teeth. My upper jaw was previously fitted with dentures, and it seemed that my lower eight teeth were headed for replacement as well. A dentist confirmed some of my suspicions during an annual checkup.
They took X-rays and cleaned my teeth. During the checkup, they discovered I had two small cavities. The dentists scheduled fillings for the following week.
But late that Friday night, I was woken up and told I had one hour to pack up my possessions. I was moving seven hours north to San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco. I joined 121 other inmates on five buses, which included a half-dozen inmates ill with COVID-19. They were later blamed for sparking an outbreak at San Quentin — one of the nation’s largest in a prison setting — that resulted in more than 2,000 infections.
This turned San Quentin into “San Quarantine” and put my dentist appointment on hold for more than one-and-a-half years. My small cavities turned into big cavities. I lost two more teeth and now I was down to my last six teeth. I commenced a procedural merry-go-round at the prison dentist office. Over several visits I had fillings done.
But nothing is ever final in prison.
Eventually, I was down to four teeth when the dentist devised a plan for my dental work. They proposed I have them pulled. I declined the offer, balking at the idea of losing my remaining teeth.
Afterward, I dwelled on why I was trying so hard to hold onto these last four teeth. The way it was going, how long would they last, anyway?
About a month later, my remaining teeth were pulled. I became toothless. I was told that I should expect to see my set of false teeth in about one year. At least I still had my upper dentures.
Through the grapevine, I found out I could apply for a soft food diet, which I heard was just that day’s main meal run through a blender.
After my first eight days living toothless, I saw a dietitian who supplemented my daily prison food with a soft diet of two 8-ounce containers of Ensure and a fruit cup.
I also asked a couple of old people in the yard about dentures. They laughed and said, “Don’t hold your breath.” They knew guys who waited up to three years to get dentures or even partials.
There are, I should say, some benefits to being toothless. If someone sits at my table during chow time and I don’t want them there, I now have the option of scaring them away by taking my upper dentures out and chewing my food so my entire face moves around grotesquely.
It seems that most folks in the United States can get whatever they want in a day or two. But that’s not how it works in prison. Where are the Amazon trucks when you need them? Can someone who reads this send me some cheese to go with my whine?
More seriously: How is someone who gets released from prison looking like a jack-o’-lantern supposed to get a job? Please don’t let me go from Gandalf to Gollum. The U.S. throws billions of dollars around on causes all over the world. Can’t us prisoners please have some teeth?
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.