An investigation into a complaint from an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, shown above, exposed issues with the Alaska Department of Corrections Dental Services Program. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

An investigation into a complaint from an inmate at Lemon Creek Correctional Center, shown above, exposed issues with the Alaska Department of Corrections Dental Services Program. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Report: Overhaul needed for DOC’s dental program

An investigation into an incident at Lemon Creek Correctional Center exposed shortcomings in the Department of Corrections’ Dental Services Program, according to a report from the state ombudsman.

“The Ombudsman found that DOC unreasonably delayed providing necessary care for an inmate’s abscessed tooth,” said the report. “This is an example of a systemic issue that exists across state prisons and jails.”

The inciting incident occurred in July 2019, when a complaint was made to the office of the ombudsman by an inmate alleging that he had been denied timely dental care for an abscessed tooth, causing him unnecessary and severe pain for several weeks. State ombudsman Kate Burkhart investigated the incident.

“The complainant asked to see a dentist about his abscessed tooth several times. He presented multiple times with pain, infection, swelling, and other symptoms related to the dental problem,” said the report. “Despite this, he was not seen by a DOC dentist – even though dentists were on site at LCCC twice during the months he was asking for treatment. Eight weeks after the initial request for dental care, DOC arranged for the complainant to see a community provider to have the tooth removed.”

While the investigation found the DOC’s deficiencies weren’t in poor faith or deliberate, according to the report, it was a part of a systemic issue across the DOC.

“Providing dental health care services in the prison environment presents numerous challenges, including the high level of need for dental care among inmates, increased demand due to prison population growth and aging, shortages in dental staff, rising costs, and budgetary constraints,” the report said. “Even so, DOC has a duty to provide timely access to necessary dental health care services and meet the service delivery standards established in policy.”

Burkhart found that DOC was already making efforts to improve the situation during the course of her investigation, as well as offering several suggestions to correct deficiencies. Recommendations included auditing the dental program to identify capability gaps, creating a plan to reduce the number of inmates awaiting care, and to codify specific time standards for providing dental care.

The DOC accepted all of the recommendations, according to the report. A DOC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for elaboration on the plans to improve dental care.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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