NEW YORK, NEW YORK — A group of Westchester County Jail inmates will have to fight their own legal battle for access to dental floss, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams ruled in Manhattan that the 11 Westchester inmates, who sued the county Sept. 10 for $500 million because they were denied access to dental floss, will have to convince him their case has a shot before he gives them a court-appointed lawyer.
“As a threshold matter, in order to qualify for appointment of counsel plaintiffs must demonstrate that their claims have substance or likelihood of success,” Abrams wrote in an Oct. 4 order. “In addition, in reviewing a request of appointment of counsel, the court must be cognizant of the fact that volunteer attorney time is a precious commodity, and thus, should not grant appointment of counsel indiscriminately.”
The inmates, lead by 26-year-old Santiago Gomez, filed their request for a free attorney after they sued Westchester County and its correction department after denying them dental floss, which they said lead to cavities in particular and bad dental health in general.
“When you get these cavities, they give you a temporary filling which, almost, by three or four weeks, falls out, which requires unnecessary procedures such as more drilling to replace this temporary filling,” Gomez told The Journal News in a telephone interview last month.
“Besides being in this facility, I’ve been in several facilities throughout New York state prisons,” Gomez said.
“All the facilities that I’ve been in sell dental floss,” he continued. “They’ve been advised in the grievance procedure here that they have ‘loops,’ which are inmate-friendly. They have a rubber appearance, they’re disposable, they come in Ziploc bags. All facilities sell them.”
Gomez is being held on a guilty plea to attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, stemming from his Nov. 25, 2011, arrest in Yonkers. He is to be sentenced Dec. 4.
The dental floss lawsuit is the third federal civil rights action he has filed since his arrest. He filed two other lawsuits in May, claiming that Yonkers police, county correction officers and medical personnel at the Valhalla jail refused his pleas for medical attention.
Gomez claimed he suffered a broken ankle, although jail officials said subsequent X-rays did not reveal a fracture.
Westchester County correction officials declined to discuss the lawsuit, but said the jail was examining safe alternatives to dental floss, which can present a security concern.