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Concept: Dollar bills caught in the mouth of dentures. Dental care accessibility in prison.
Photo from iStock

Sometimes, trying to get a basic need met in prison can be like a quest for the holy grail.

Take my experience trying to secure denture glue. It has been an essential item for me because I needed it in order to eat. I first got dentures at age 30, a consequence of being dumb and young and getting in too many fights.

I’ve been in prison 22 years. I received my first prison denture set 20 years ago. Before I came to prison, making dentures fit into my mouth was never a problem. But behind bars, dentists have been unable to make my dentures fit properly. I’ve had them come out of my mouth while talking. One time, I sneezed, and they flew out of my mouth across the room.

Because of this, I needed denture glue to hold them in place. That seemed simple enough. But finding affordable denture glue in prison became complicated after the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.

Before the pandemic, I bought denture glue at the commissary, basically a prison general store. It cost $6. Then the pandemic came. With all of the supply chain problems that prompted, I figured prices for denture glue would go up. But I wasn’t prepared for it to double to roughly $12.

I only make 40 cents an hour working in the prison library. At that wage, it took me 30 hours of work to afford a 2-ounce tube of glue. If I’m stingy, I can make the tube last three weeks. The prison has also added a generic adhesive, Staydent, for $6.82 — but it won't hold dentures through an entire meal, so you have to use three times as much.

Outside of prison, you can buy denture adhesives for just $4, according to my grandmother who checked prices for me at pharmacies near her in California.

I found this price discrepancy unfair, so I filed a grievance with the prison in February 2022. Later, I received a written response from the person at our prison who oversaw the facility’s medical and commissary contract. She told me that there was a “free option” for denture adhesive available.

This was news to me. I was happy to hear there was such a simple solution. So I asked our medical department — which is run by Centurion, a for-profit company — for a tube, and figured I’d get one. But then I was informed by a prison dentist that I had to be considered indigent, or in need, to get free denture glue. And to qualify as indigent in Idaho prisons, your trust account had to have a balance of less than 15 cents, with no deposits for 30 consecutive days, according to Prison Policy Initiative.

In frustration, I wrote back to the contract supervisor about my situation. She was very kind, and sent an email to the dentist explaining the situation. Again I thought the problem was taken care of. I put in another request for adhesive, mentioning my second exchange with the contract supervisor. Then I met with the dentist, who did not know this person. Once again, he would not give me free glue unless I was indigent.

I was close to giving up. I wrote to the contract supervisor one more time, around May 2022. She was supposed to have authority over private contractors such as Centurion and was frustrated as I was. She sent a directive to the medical director, telling them to provide me with denture adhesive.

After three months and a meeting with our prison’s medical director, I finally started receiving tubes. The ordeal was over, and the situation had been resolved. Or so I thought.

Suddenly, I stopped getting the adhesive. I wound up going through the same process as before. This time, the grievance was answered directly by the medical director, who said again that I needed to be indigent to get free adhesive. I was at my wit's end. But then, a few days later, I was given a tube of denture glue from the medical department — without even putting a request in.

This continued for a couple months until I was called to the dentist's office. He handed me a tube, telling me that it would be my last one. They would no longer be providing denture adhesive to anyone. Even indigent inmates would now have to go through their unit’s corrections officers to get it.

A couple days later, the dentist said they had made a mistake and would still be providing adhesive.

After another two months, I put in a medical request for the adhesive, but received no response even though the billing department still charged me the standard $2 co-pay for a dental visit. I put in another request, explaining I'd been charged for the visit but had not obtained what I needed.

More recently, an incarcerated janitor told me that the officers were, indeed, giving the denture adhesive out in their units. An officer also confirmed this fact. He told me I could not have any — because, you guessed it — I was not indigent.

For now, I’m still paying a premium price for a 2-ounce tube of denture glue, a cost that quickly eats into my measly prison pay.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Dennis “Abbadunamis” Mintun is a writer incarcerated in Idaho.