It's Wednesday morning at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Cleveland Unit, and Dr. Joseph Sheringo is in his element, suturing a patient’s lip that was split during a fall.
In the few minutes it takes him to complete this first procedure, a waiting room at a small medical clinic nestled in this East Texas correctional center fills with other patients who have arrived to be seen by Sheringo, a dentist for UTMB Correctional Managed Care.
Sheringo, along with the help of dental assistant Amy Scott, spends the next several hours working through sick-call and intake exams and performing oral surgeries.
“Dentistry is the same no matter where you do it,” says Sheringo, whose gray hair and salt-and-pepper beard frame steel-blue eyes that help to reinforce his calm demeanor. “I just like helping people and taking care of patients. There’s a lot of need in the correctional system, a lot of neglect with dental health, and so I can relieve pain while not having the stress of managing my own practice.”
Sheringo is one of 74 dentists practicing in UTMB-CMC Dental Services, which also employs 26 dental hygienists and 112 dental assistants who together provide care to the majority of the prison population in the state of Texas.
In FY2018 alone, CMC’s Dental Services completed more than 138,500 procedures, including the restoration of teeth, routine cleanings, extractions and the treatment of periodontal disease, according to Dr. Billy Horton, director of UTMB-CMC Dental Services.
“Dental Services is comprised of a great group of individuals who give their best each day to ensure our patient population receives a high level of dental care,” says Horton. “Our patients are able to obtain access to dental care in a timely manner for urgent procedures that relieve them of any discomfort they may be having as well as routine care such as comprehensive dental exams, teeth cleanings and routine fillings.”
For Sheringo, his career in dentistry started in 1972 in the United States Air Force as a dental hygienist. After five years of military service, he attended dental school at the University of Texas Health Science Center–San Antonio, graduating in 1982 and launching into private practice in Crockett, Texas.
In 1984, he began providing dental care for the Crockett State School–Texas Youth Commission’s student population, officially beginning a career in correctional health care that has spanned more than three decades. He went to work full-time for TDCJ in 1987, making the transfer to UTMB when it became the correctional managed care provider in 1994.
“The thought of being able to work without having to run a practice, to just arrive at work, see patients and do what I was really trained to do was very appealing to me,” Sheringo recalls about his decision to work in corrections. “It was less stressful for me in a lot of ways, and it has turned out to be a great decision.”
These days, Sheringo and Scott split their time between three different facilities each week: the male facility in Cleveland, Texas, and two female correctional centers—the TDCJ’s Lucile Plane State Jail and Henley State Jail in nearby Dayton.
Sheringo’s day begins at 4:30 a.m. with coffee and breakfast before he commutes from his home to one of the units where he and Scott start sick-call exams at 6 a.m. Two hours later, they’ve moved on to addressing their six to eight surgical patients for the day. Once those procedures are finished, the duo conducts intake exams for patients coming directly from county jail to determine whether there’s a major pathology requiring immediate treatment.
Sheringo believes dentistry is vital to improving and maintaining the health of the prison population as a whole.
“I think the dental program provides a great service to the university, to TDCJ and to the state as a whole,” he says. “The dentists, assistants, hygienists and nursing staff work closely together to intercept and treat issues for patients before they become serious, expensive problems.”
Since going to work in corrections, Sheringo has opened dental clinics at the TDCJ’s Michael, Hightower, Plane, Henley and Cleveland units, helping to alleviate pain and improve health for thousands of patients throughout his career.
Scott, his dental assistant for the past 19 years who Sheringo affectionately calls “Scotty,” is effusive in her praise for the dentist.
“He is actually one of the best dentists I’ve ever worked for because he treats every patient with care and compassion,” she says. “Yes, we’re caring for people in the correctional system but we’re here to help them, not judge them. Dr. Sheringo’s patient care is exceptional.”
When he’s not caring for patients, Sheringo enjoys traveling, participating in motorsports and playing in professional poker tournaments—including the World Series of Poker and on the World Poker Tour.
“I’ve finished in the Top 10 percent of some major poker tournaments,” Sheringo says. “But it’s just a hobby, and I consider myself an accomplished amateur. It’s something I enjoy doing, especially if I can combine the poker with traveling.”
Still, his passion is caring for others, and his enthusiasm for the dental profession is infectious as he explains one procedure and the next and the challenges that each present.
His patients, however, don’t always share his enthusiasm.
“People are people,” Sheringo says, a grin escaping from a corner of his mouth. “Most everyone is fearful when it comes to going to the dentist and that doesn’t change just because we’re in a prison.”