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DEAN v. COUGHLIN

December 3, 1985

MARY DEAN, et al., for themselves and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs against THOMAS A. COUGHLIN III, et al., Defendants


The opinion of the court was delivered by: KRAM

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND O R D E R

SHIRLEY WOHL KRAM, U.S.D.J.

 Plaintiffs, who represent a class consisting of all persons who are or will be confined at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility ("Bedford Hills") during the pendency of this case, bring this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the dental care provided at Bedford Hills violates their rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

 Named as defendants are: Thomas A. Coughlin III, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, Raymond Broaddus, Assistant Commissioner for Health Services of the New York State Department of Correctional Services; Sydney Pollard, Dental Director of the New York State Department of Correctional Services; Frank Headley, Superintendent of Bedford Hills; Jimmie Harris, Health Administrator of Bedford Hills; and Stefan Sherman *fn1" , dentist at Bedford Hills. Plaintiffs allege a complete breakdown of dental services at Bedford Hills, characterized by the failure to examine inmates when they arrive and when they request routine care, a long backlog in examining inmates who seek emergency care, and the failure to schedule follow-up appointments ordered by the facility dentist. Plaintiffs allege that as a result of this breakdown, Bedford Hills' inmates have suffered pain and permanent damage to their health.

 This case is presently before the Court on plaintiffs' motion, pursuant to Rule 65 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for a preliminary injunction ordering defendants to provide adequate dental care to inmates at Bedford Hills.

 FINDINGS OF FACT

 I. Background

 The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility is the largest state correctional facility for women in New York, housing approximately 570 to 600 inmates. It is also the only maximum security prison for women in New York. It serves as both a permanent correctional facility for some inmates, and a reception center for all women felons in New York State, regardless of where they are eventually to be incarcerated. According to the New York State Department of Correction Services policy guidelines for dental services *fn2" , the dental clinic at Bedford is responsible for giving an intake examination to all new inmates, whether they are to be incarcerated permanently at Bedford Hills or elsewhere, and performing preventive, prophylactic, and other routine dental services for permanent Bedford Hills inmates. The clinic consists of two operatories, which consist of a chair, light, instrument table, and cuspidor. The staff is presently composed of one full-time dentist, two part-time temporary dentists, one dental hygienist, and one clerk.

 II. Administration of the Dental Clinic

 A. Initial Screening

 The first step in the provision of dental care at Bedford Hills is the initial screening exam which is to be performed on all incoming inmates. The exam is performed either by the dental hygenist or the dentist, and consists of taking the patient's medical history and charting her teeth. The purpose of this exam is threefold: to identify inmates, to identify problems needing attention, and to detect and treat emergency conditions. Both the defendants' and plaintiffs' prison dental experts testified that it is good prison dental practice to perform initial exams within fourteen days. Bedford Hills' regulations also call for initial exams within fourteen days.

 As Dr. Sherman, the Bedford Hills dentist testified, however, inmates can wait four months or more for an initial screening, and the record is replete with examples of inmates who waited at least four months for initial exams. For example, Mary Jenkins arrived at Bedford Hills in August, 1984 and was not seen until January, 1985, a period of five months, during which she made numerous requests for treatment. Kathy Boudin stated in an affidavit that she arrived at Bedford Hills in May, 1984 and was not seen until December, 1984 and her dental chart confirms this.

 The record also establishes that some patients have never received an initial screening examination or any other examination. Clara Karnbach, who arrived in September, 1983, has never been examined, and Dr. Sherman, in his affidavit, indicated he could not locate a chart for her. The Court also finds that Elizabeth Roman, who made numerous requests to see the dentist and whose chart defendants could not locate, also has never been examined by the dentist.

 While some inmates, such as Maureen Ragsdale, who arrived at Bedford Hills on June 21, 1984 and was examined that month, are seen promptly, many are not. The failure to give initial examinations to so many inmates prevents the dental clinic from establishing an orderly and efficient system for delivering dental services to inmates. Without carrying out prompt initial screening examinations on all inmates, the clinic has no way to prioritize the inmates' dental needs. The dentist does not know which inmates need immediate attention for pain, and which inmates need care that can wait. As defendants' own expert, Dr. Conte, testified, the initial screening exam should set up the entire classification system for an orderly treatment of dental patients in a prison.

 B. Requests for Routine Care

 According to the defendants' guidelines, policy memoranda, and testimony, routine dental care includes examinations, fillings, cleaning, extractions, dentures, root canal, and gum treatment. Inmates request routine care by filling out "Request for Dental Appointment" forms, and by returning them to a member of the dental clinic, who places names on waiting lists and schedules appointments. The dental clinic is then supposed to acknowledge receipt of the request and send an appointment date to the inmate.

 The Court finds that the system for providing routine care at Bedford Hills is defunct. Dr. Sherman admitted that he does not use the request forms, which he characterizes as worthless. Della Sutton, the dental hygienist, places the requests in a gauze box, and does not use them. The clinic does not send acknowledgements, make appointments or compile waiting lists. In fact, over three hundred request forms or notes seeking appointments have been filed since January, 1984, and nothing has been done with them. Defendants' own expert, Dr. Conte, stated that a prison dental clinic's failure to respond to over 300 requests for routine care would present a problem. The Court agrees. The dental clinic's failure to answer these routine requests for care both denies inmates treatment and forces them to seek care outside of normal channels.

 C. Requests for Emergency Care

 Dr. Sherman defines a dental emergency as swollen or infected gums, a broken denture, or pain in the teeth or mouth. The defendants' guidelines for requesting emergency care, as well as a memo to the inmates, describe Bedford Hills' system for providing emergency care. Inmates needing emergency care are to sign up on the nurse's screening list or sick call sign-up sheet, both of which are posted every morning in the housing units. The lists are examined to determine which complaints are real emergencies, and the dental hygienist is then responsible for arranging for the emergency patients to see the dentist. Inmates are informed that they can request emergency care at night and on weekends and are warned not to use the emergency sign-up sheets to make appointments for routine care.

 As with the system for requesting routine care, the process for requesting emergency care at Bedford Hills has broken down. Inmates sign the daily sick call sign-up sheets or the nurse's screening list, but are not seen for months. For example, Helen Richardson signed up for emergency care sixteen times between October, 1984 and March, 1985. She was never called to see the dentist. Shirley White signed up for emergency care on March 20, 1985 and has not been seen by the dentist. Laura Whitmore signed the sick-call sheet on February 25, 1985 but has yet to see the dentist. Mary Jenkins, who lost a tooth from a lower denture, requested emergency care ten times between August, 1984 and January, 1985 before finally seeing the dentist. Hannah Coch requested emergency assistance thirteen times in March, 1985 but has not been seen.

 Defendants admit that there are long delays in treating inmates who request emergency care. Dr. Sherman stated that it often takes him three days to see all the patients on one day's emergency list. At first glance, this might not seem problematic. However, Dr. Sherman stated that as of April, 1985, he was still working on the emergency list from February, 1985. Dr. Conte, the defendants' expert, stated that in light of this backlog, Bedford Hills does not really have a system for treating patients who need emergency care. The Court agrees.

 Defendants, while admitting that there are long delays in providing treatment to inmates who request emergency care, assert that most patients who request emergency care are not emergencies at all, but use the nurse's screening and sick call sheets as a means of requesting routine care. To support this contention, defendants state that while many inmates sign up for emergency care during weekday mornings, few sign up at night or on weekends. Defendants also claim that inmates abuse the emergency sign-up process, and point to inmates such as Miriam Acevedo who testified that she signs up for emergency care even when she is not in pain. Thus, defendants essentially state that they use the emergency request list as a means of providing routine care because patients on the emergency list need only routine care. However, since the clinic has not even seen many of the patients on the list, it has no way of knowing which inmates warrant emergency treatment.

 Defendants' attempt to blame the inmates for the backlog in emergency care is also misplaced. Lacking screening exams and responses to routine care requests, inmates understandably realize that the only way to receive dental treatment is to request emergency care, whether they need it or not. The backlog in emergency care is thus the result of the breakdown in initial screening and routine care procedures.

 D. Follow-up Appointments

 The record also indicates that the dental clinic is lax in scheduling and keeping follow-up appointments ordered by the dentist. For example, Miriam Acevedo's dental chart indicates that during the course of treatment for a cap on her tooth, the dentist ordered four follow-up visits, none of which were kept on time, and for one of which Acevedo waited one year. During this time, the record indicates Acevedo made numerous requests for dental care, including personal visits to the dentist, but was not seen for treatment. Karen White, who was treated for sinitis, was scheduled for follow-up care within one to two days, but was seen nine days later. Her dental chart indicates she was in pain throughout that period. Ruth Kitchens was treated for a broken tooth on April 18, 1984; the dentist ordered another visit in one week, but did not see her for eight months. She testified that she was in pain while waiting to see the dentist. Dr. Sherman, while testifying that the follow-up care system was working properly at Bedford Hills, admitted that there was no record that he saw inmates Sondra Halpin, Estella Coronado, Miriam Acevedo, Lydia Cerillo, and Debra Buford, among others, within the time ordered for follow-up care.

 The record indicates there are occasions when patients see the dentist for a follow-up visit within the time ordered. Helen Richardson, for example, testified on cross-examination that she saw Dr. Sherman for a check-up three days after a tooth was removed. But such examples do not mitigate the damage and pain caused by the series of failures to provide follow-up care. Nor do they indicate that the system of follow-up care is working properly at Bedford Hills.

 E. Summary

 The above findings demonstrate a total breakdown in the administration of the dental clinic at Bedford Hills. The failure to perform initial exams, the collapse of the system for requesting routine care, the backlog in emergency requests, and the failure to keep follow-up appointments all create a labyrinth in which inmates at Bedford Hills, facing sundry obstacles, use various means to see the dentist in the hope that although many of their attempts will fail, they will eventually obtain treatment. Besides signing up for routine and emergency care, inmates are forced to go outside the regular prisoner process to get treatment. They request the help of prison health administrator, Jimmie Harris, accost Dr. ...


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