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Dentist story shows value of newspapers

October 12, 2018

We hope that Texans have two takeaways from the recent story by the Houston Chronicle about the appalling lack of dental care in Texas prisons:

One, prison inmates deserve basic food, housing and health care. Without that, their chances of being rehabilitated are reduced — and your chances of paying for their next stint in prison are increased.

Second, this is why newspapers still matter. There aren’t a lot of organizations that have the skills and resources to find a story like this and bring it to the public’s attention. Your daily newspaper is usually one of them.

The facts behind this story were obvious to prison inmates and perhaps the family members and friends they talked to. But they didn’t have the leverage to give it the attention it deserved. A newspaper did.

Chronicle reporters found that toothless and nearly toothless inmates were routinely denied basic dental care or dentures. Instead, incredibly, they were offered pureed food they could digest without chewing. In 2016, prison dentists provided only 71 dentures to 216,000 inmates. Some inmates had dentures that simply needed repairs. Others had teeth pulled with the promise of dentures later, but the dentures never came.

That may be the way prisoners are treated in North Korea, but it shouldn’t happen here. Fortunately, the outcry over this situation was so great that prison officials responded. They have agreed to create a denture clinic and hire a prosthodontic specialist to get inmates the dental care they need.

This is not coddling. It is, or should be, part of a larger effort to treat inmates with basic decency to make sure their current stay in prison is their last. Most inmates are paroled or released back into society. If they have the education, skills training and drug counseling they need to succeed on the outside, they’re less likely to commit crimes again and return to the inside.

Taxpayers win with both of those outcomes. They don’t suffer the loss or pain of crimes, and fewer of their tax dollars go to our prison system.

All of this wouldn’t have happened without the Chronicle’s incisive reporting. And it is highly unlikely that a wacky website or Facebook post could have galvanized public opinion and motivated state officials to finally do the right thing.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, summed up the situation well when he said, “The state has a responsibility for the safety and welfare of the citizens we incarcerate. I just expect them to provide proper care before I read about it in the Chronicle.”

He’s right, of course. But as long as we have watchdogs like a free press, these kinds of injustices can’t remain secret forever.

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