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Wash. inmate sues prison over dentures policy

Jeremy de la Mater claims officials refused to provide him with dentures due to his short time in prison

By Chad Sokol
The Spokesman-Review

WALLA WALLA, Wash. An inmate at the Washington State Penitentiary has filed a federal lawsuit claiming prison officials refused to provide him with dentures after removing all of his rotten teeth, forcing him to live on a diet of soft and blended food.

Jimmy de la Mater arrived at the Walla Walla prison in September 2013. Three months later, one of his teeth broke when he bit into an apple, and the prison’s dental staff pulled the rest. But because he would be in prison for less than five years, the lawsuit claims, state officials refused to provide the 42-year-old with dentures.

The lawsuit, which de la Mater hand-wrote in the prison, claims a dentist “waited until there were only three teeth left in my mouth before he stated that I didn’t have enough time left to have my teeth replaced with any denture prosthesis.”

De la Mater wrote that his teeth were extracted over six months starting in December 2014. He has been without teeth for more than two years and claims the soft-food diet has caused him intestinal pain and discomfort. He said he has filed formal complaints to no avail.

“So, I’m to be on a soft diet until I get released, and not have my teeth replaced until I can see a (dentist) on the streets?” he wrote.

De la Mater is asking the state for $15,000 in damages.

The Spokane attorney representing him, Jeffry Finer, said the prison has solved one problem and created a new one.

“It was necessary for his health to have the last few teeth removed,” Finer said. “They had a strict policy imposed on everyone that said dentures were not necessary, and they would serve you ‘an appropriate blend’ of food until you were released.”

Finer said it’s worth paying $1,500 to provide an inmate with dentures because it may help him land a job after getting out of prison. Former prisoners who enter the workforce reoffend at lower rates than their unemployed counterparts.

“One of the reasons (de la Mater) wanted the dentures is because he wanted to get out and seek employment,” Finer said. Denying him dentures “doesn’t make sense to me, looking at the cost-benefit ratio.”

The case was filed last week in the U.S. District Court in Spokane. Finer said the state Department of Corrections has already changed its policy on dentures.

“The new rule, I’m told, is six months -- which still concerns me, but it’s a vast improvement over five years,” he said.

Shari Hall, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Penitentiary, said the prison has no control over Department of Corrections health care policies. She referred additional questions to an agency spokesman, who did not immediately respond to inquiries Wednesday.

A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office declined to comment. State attorneys are representing five of the defendants, including three dentists and the prison superintendent, Donald Holbrook.

A sixth defendant, Walla Walla dentist Rachel Deininger, who contracted with the prison, is represented by Spokane attorney Jeffrey Galloway.

“Pursuant to DOC policy, my client was unable to provide dentures to Mr. de la Mater,” Galloway said. “We take the position that Ms. Deininger did not fall below the standard of care.”

De la Mater has an extensive criminal history in Cowlitz County that includes drug charges. He is serving a three-year sentence for punching and choking his girlfriend in April 2013 in Kelso, Washington, where they were living in a garage, according to court records.

He is scheduled to be released in about six weeks, Finer said.