Squirrel Hill dentist enjoys retirement … in prison

Squirrel Hill dentist enjoys retirement … in prison

Dr. Alex Sax, who has retired from private practice, finds his prison clients “intelligent and creative.”

Photo by Adam Reinherz
Dr. Alex Sax, who has retired from private practice, finds his prison clients “intelligent and creative.” Photo by Adam Reinherz

Since retiring, Dr. Alex Sax has seen a lot of bars. No longer in private practice, Sax spends his days seated beside DUI delinquents, alimony offenders, sexual predators and even murderers. The irony of Sax’s new haunt is that it is dry; the hardest thing available is ibuprofen.

As a general dentist with Correctional Dental Associates, a New Jersey-based corporation that provides “cost-effective, affordable, high-quality dental services” to inmate populations, Sax provides basic oral surgery and acute dental care at the Allegheny County Jail. Apart from various extractions, Sax regularly treats inmates for infections, lesions, tumors and facial cellulitis.

“My role is to get the individual out of pain so he can resume his duties,” Sax explained.

For most of his work week, Sax is stationed in a separate medical area of the jail. Along with another general dentist, there are two assistants and “very high-quality, high-end equipment,” Sax explained.

Although he spends much time in this designated space, emergencies require him to “go up on the pod” and examine patients in their cells.

“It takes a unique individual to want to work in this environment,” he said. “There are a variety of personalities and a variety of emergency needs, so not everybody would be comfortable.”

While Sax admitted that certain challenges exist, safety is not one.

“People think I’m in physical threat working in a jail, and that’s not the case,” he said. “There’s much more risk of violence on the streets than in jail.”

There are no guns in the facility. Even the COs (correctional officers) don’t carry, although they do have Tasers.

“You’re not going to get shot in jail,” said Sax. “Maybe there’s an occasional shank, but I haven’t seen them.”

Sax, 65, joined CDA more than a year ago. Since then, he has worked in both the Allegheny County Jail in downtown Pittsburgh and the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia.

Working in such environments has provided the self-described “simple guy from Carnegie” newfound insight.

“It’s not like you see on TV where there’s out-of-control misbehaving and heavy mood issues. I don’t see that,” he said. Instead, Sax described his patients as intelligent, creative, artistic and rational.

Many are “lacking proper education and proper opportunities,” he said. “The challenge of our society is to help them rehab and make better choices.”

While Sax has gained new perspective, he has also acquired unfamiliar restrictions.

Brightly colored clothes are prohibited for staff so the stylish Sax simply wears dark blue or black scrubs. Also, unlike his days in private practice, midday workouts have ceased for the legendary runner.

“I can’t come and go as I please,” said the 52-time marathon finisher.

Regarding personal items, regulations exist on what may enter the facility, he said. “I can’t bring my chessboard in.”

As a nationally rated chess player, that may be the most difficult directive. During the day, Sax often observes inmates playing chess in the yard. “They bet their desserts. I would love to take their chocolate cake,” he remarked.

But despite these minor inconveniences, Sax is thrilled with the new job.

“I feel like I’m doing a service helping the inmate population,” he said. “There are not too many practitioners willing to go in there and do this type of work, but I’m comfortable doing it.”

“I manage 64 dentists, and I look at Alex as being one of the strongest in the group,” said Dr. Leslie A. Hayling Jr., president and CEO of CDA. “In our environment, there is a need for effective and efficient oral surgery. Alex is a significant asset to our organization. I wish that I had met him years ago.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at adamr@thejewishchronicle.net.

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