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Do Prisoners Have a Constitutional Right to Dental Floss?

| November 16, 2012

Might as well not turn them into their own prison bars. (Dick Johnson)

By Angel Castillo Jr.

Because we live in an advanced democracy where anyone can claim grievances in court, judges often get presented with unusual requests. For instance, does a jail inmate have a constitutional right to be provided dental floss?

Six recent inmate lawsuits filed in Florida and New York are raising such a novel claim.

In Florida, five inmates have separately sued Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in federal court, claiming deprivation of federally protected civil rights through the denial of dental floss. “I don’t care if they file 400 suits, they’re not getting it,” Bradshaw has pledged.

Similarly, a group of 11 inmates at the Westchester County jail in Valhalla, New York, just north of White Plains, sued the county in September for $500 million in damages in federal court in Manhattan.

One of the Florida plaintiffs, inmate Joel Flores, 22, alleged that Bradshaw’s anti-floss policy is preventing him from complying with the oral hygiene recommendations of the American Dental Association.

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The lack of dental floss, Flores alleges, “is causing me oral abscesses, pain, discomfort, tooth decay, loss of teeth, and could contribute to endocarditis by plaque traveling through the gums into the bloodstream and accumulating in my heart, which causes a bacterial infection, and can lead to death”.

In two of the other lawsuits against Bradshaw, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick A. White quickly dismissed the floss claims this month. He concluded that the denial of floss “is not a constitutional violation”.

The danger of dental floss, according to jail officials such as Bradshaw, is that it can be used to strangle another inmate or a guard, braid a rope for escaping, or even cut through prison bars.

However, Florida’s state prison officials say that they have found a solution. At the state’s prison canteens they sell to inmates “security oriented floss loops”. A 30-loop bag costs $2.26, said Ann V. Howard, communications director for the Florida Department of Corrections.

In contrast to traditional string and nylon floss, the “Floss Loops Safety Dental Floss” is designed to break easily, can’t be made into a rope, can’t be used to pick locks or handcuffs, and can’t be used as a weapon or a saw, according to the manufacturer.

Each safety loop consists of a pair of parallel rubbery floss strands extending between a pair of grips. The loops require using both of the flosser’s hands to hold the grips while the floss is inserted between the teeth, and the process almost looks like flossing with a rubber band.

Prodded by the inmates’ lawsuit, officials at the Westchester County Department of Correction have announced that inmate-safe floss loops will be sold at the jail commissary for $2.08 for a bag of 30. The lawsuit is still pending, however.

One hopes that Bradshaw will reconsider. Even if the inmates do not have a constitutional right to dental floss, it can hardly be a huge hardship for the Palm Beach County Jail to sell the safety floss loops to inmates who want to practice good dental hygiene.

Maybe they will smile more.

Angel Castillo, Jr., a former reporter and editor for the New York Times and The Miami Herald, practices employment law in Miami. He can be reached here.

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10 Responses for “Do Prisoners Have a Constitutional Right to Dental Floss?”

  1. rthomp11 says:

    Let them buy the dental loops but only from money they earn.

    Also, It should be in the Constitution that prisoners don’t have the right to sue anyone much less the United States for any reason. They are in jail for committing a crime. They lost all their rights once found guilty of that crime.

    • Nonsense. They are in prison to have their behavior “corrected.” The onus is on the state to do that correcting properly. Taking care of all health needs in anticipation of a smooth re-integration into the society is part and parcel of that process. Besides, how does an inmate earn any money? Inmate labor is slave labor.

  2. Liana G says:

    I guess this is to be expected living in a country of lawyers – a man’s got to make a living, even if it’s off the backs of taxpayers. As oppose to China, a country of engineers. Good thing the Chinese don’t follow Christianity or they’d be building stairs to heaven by now!

  3. knowsalittle says:

    If these prisoners want their rights, then they need to keep their a** out of jail. I feel inmates deserve nothing more than a mat on the floor, 3 basic meals a day, and a blanket. Nothing more. Tired of criminals complaining they are mistreated.

  4. Magnolia says:

    I dunno. I think you should lose your rights when you go to prison. Who is paying the legal fees?

    • That’s obviously the way Florida handles matters. When an ex-felon wants to rejoin society, s/he has to wait about a decade before the rights are being restored. In other states, that restoration is automatic after the jail time. So, without any rights whatsoever, we want to check if those folks fall back into crime. Big surprise! Yes, they do; what else can they do? We have only a limited list of businesses that will hire ex-felons. At the same time, some establishments–City of Palm Coast, for example–will use inmate labor at no wages whatsoever. Can any private company compete against slave labor? No way. So that’s a wrong against competing businesses. Does the inmate learn anything useful for social re-integration? No way. Because the City of Palm Coast is not on the list of businesses hiring ex-felons. And that, ultimately, is a failure on the part of the Department of Corrections (which really should be the Department of Getting Even with the [expletive deleted]) since the department does not rehabilitate anyone with such labor tasks. And remember that this list of inmates may consist of a long list of people who indulged in a bit of marijuana, the same stuff that several states meanwhile have legalized.
      Wadda world!

  5. Nancy N. says:

    The comments on this post sadly reflect the ignorance of the average persona in this country regarding criminal justice and corrections philosophy and policy.

    These prisoners are asking nothing more than the right to spend their own (actually their family’s) money on purchasing a basic hygiene product that has been deemed to be secure for correctional facility use by the state of Florida to help maintain their health. It costs the government nothing to allow this and compromises security not at all to allow the special correctional facility secure product to be sold. In fact, since the government would have to pay for caring for the inmate through any illness or dental crisis that occurred during their time in custody as the result of the lack of dental hygiene, you could argue that it could actually save the government money to allow the products to be sold to inmates to keep good dental hygiene.

    So exactly why is it your problem if the state or local jail sells this product to the inmates? You should actually be demanding that the government allow the inmates to purchase this product so that it will improve their hygiene and lower medical/dental care costs of inmates!

    Too many people seem to forget that one of the things that separates us from China and the world’s other most egregious human rights violators is that we believe in basic human rights for our prisoners. Our legal system is there to protect the lowest among us – including prisoners. Doing things like protecting their rights is what gives us the moral authority to claim we are the greatest democracy on earth. We are only as great as we treat the least among us.

    Approximately 90% of the inmates in FL DOC will get out at some point. In a county jail, that percentage is even higher. How do you expect to treat people like animals for years and then have them get out and be able to function in society as productive human beings?

    FYI Magnolia – no one is paying legal fees for these inmates. I looked up the cases on the Federal Court database and these inmates filed Pro Se – they are serving as their own attorneys. It’s extremely common in cases like these.

    rhomp11, Knowsalittle, & Magnolia – you do realize that this case has been filed by inmates at a county jail, where the large portion of the inmates are pre-trial detention, meaning they are awaiting trial still and have not actually been convicted of anything? Not everyone sitting in jail is guilty of anything.

    • CO says:

      Nancy N. – As a Detention Deputy, and therefore one who works around inmates everyday I find SOME truth in all the comments given regarding this article. I understand the emotion behind each point of view given, but you have articulated the truth of the matter very well. Whether or not the general public understands or agrees with how it should be, what you stated is how it truly is per Florida Statutes. Also, morally we are obligated to treat even inmates with human decency. I also agree that we sometimes lean too much in favor of inmates versus the victims advocacy. I also know that our prison systems are not geared toward nor funded in a manner to give rehabilitation. I don’t believe many would argue that fact. We simply are not providing a path back to being or becoming for the first time, a productive citizen. As far as the main issue of this article which is whether or not to allow inmates to use monies their families or friends give them to buy dental floss that is deemed safe for a correctional setting, I believe it should be allowed.

  6. Magnolia says:

    @Nancy N, I doubt that very few awaiting trial at the county jail are innocent. Thank you for enlightening us as to the criminal justice system.

    FYI, you won’t find me among those demanding anything extra from the federal, or local government for prisoners. This is not camp. You are not supposed to have rights in prison. That’s why they call it prison.

    And I believe the re-arrest record for most indicates that the likelihood of getting out and staying out for long is not very good.

    So pardon me if I don’t pull out my violin.

  7. Nancy N. says:

    My bad, Magnolia. I thought people weren’t actually guilty until they were convicted of something in this country. I forgot that we have conservative Republican rule in this state and that the Constitution isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on here.

    And since the recidivism rate in the state of Florida is something like 30%, you can’t say “most” inmates will not stay out of prison. I learned enough in math class to know that.

    I keep seeing people say over and over here that “prisoners don’t have rights.” You can say that all you want, but the reality is that they do have rights under the law. Not the same ones you have, but they do have certain basic rights that are guaranteed by the constitution and state and federal law.

    I don’t get why people are so bent out of shape about this story. They aren’t asking for steak for dinner or flat screen TV’s. They are asking to be able to buy dental floss. With their own money. Do you really think they are going to be running around in there saying “hey, I’m living the high life, I got DENTAL FLOSS!!!! that is crappy quality and I had to pay ridiculous prices for and which has these ridiculous loops in it.”

    Did it ever occur to all of you that maybe those 30% wouldn’t go back if they were actually rehabilitated during their time inside instead of treated worse than Michael Vick’s dogs?

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