Dental Floss: Cavity Fighter or The Perfect Murder Weapon

Eleven inmates at a Westchester County jail seek $500 million and the right to use dental floss in a lawsuit brought against Westchester County and dental care providers. The inmates allege that, despite constant brushing, they are unable to fend off cavities because they are denied dental floss. With no floss to keep tartar away, the inmates took self-help measures rid themselves of unsightly tartar; such as shoving “weird objects” between their teeth. According to the complaint, the problem is compound. The lack of floss causes cavities. But the county facility refuses to provide permanent fillings or crowns. that is so because the county lock up is a holding facility for pre-trial detainees or for sentenced inmates awaiting transfer to a New York State penitentiary.

Inmates claim that the denial of floss constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. To prove such claim: (1) plaintiff must show that he had a serious medical condition; and (2) that it was met with deliberate indifference.

In response to the suit, Deputy Correction Commissioner Justin Pruyne defended the ban, saying “it (dental floss) potentially can be used as a weapon.” According to prison officials, apart from being a deadly weapon, floss can used to cut through prison bars or fashioned into rope. In fact, in 1994, a prisoner did just that, using an 18-foot floss rope to clamber down the walls of a West Virginia prison. 

Considering that prison officials are given a large degree of deference, the odds against success are quite long. In era of budget cutbacks and crowded dockets, it is difficult to move insurance cases to trial, but at least we know that our jurists are grappling with weighty issues, such as whether denying inmates dental floss constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Thanks to Gabriel Darwick for his contribution to this post.  If you have any questions, please email Dennis at dwade@wcmlaw.com.