MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) — It's a growing problem that is literally eating away at health care funds for prisons across the country — meth mouth.
Once a user addicted to the potent drug ends up behind bars, the cost to fix the dental problem falls on the taxpayer.
"The soft tissue of the mouths and nose start deteriorating. Their skin starts to become thinner," said Lt. Patrick Morris with the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.
According to the National Association of Counties, police nationwide rank meth as the number one drug they battle on a regular basis, and it's one Morris is all too familiar with.
"Five years ago, we were actually running a meth lab or two a week," said Morris.
This year Morris and his officers have busted fewer than 10 labs. While that appears to be a decrease, he says meth cookers are just getting sneakier.
"It can be attributed to meth cookers learning better ways and more mobile ways to manufacture to avoid detection by law enforcement," said Morris. "It's becoming an import drug more than it ever has in the past."
For those who do get caught, they eventually end up in state prisons, of course, on the taxpayers' dime. The South Carolina prison system is home to approximately 22,000 inmates.
"A lot of people who come into prison have had little to any dental work," said Clark Newsome, spokesperson for the South Carolina prison system.
The most current statistics show that an estimated one-third of all U.S. inmates have meth mouth which is leading to record high prison health care costs in states like Georgia, Nevada, and Texas.
"Ten to 15 percent of the population has some sort of meth problem here," said Newsome.
Clark says about $3 million of taxpayer money goes toward inmate dental work, and it's a figure that continues to grow as the prison population gets larger.
Of that number, Newsome says, about $300,000 has gone toward fixing inmates with meth mouth and says that's a small amount compared to prisons in other states where the number has reached the millions.
"We don't do any cosmetic work here," added Newsome. "A lot of people in prison have pain from it and dental disease."
But for many who crave the high meth brings, Morris says for users the side effects are a price they're willing to pay but it is a never ending cycle for state prisons.
"A lot of meth cookers that go to prison. Once they get out, they start cooking again," said Morris.
Newsome says 18 full time dentists work for the South Carolina prison system and only provide basic dental work.
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