POLITICS
08/16/2017 08:00 am ET Updated Aug 30, 2017

Women In Federal Prisons Are Now Guaranteed Free Tampons And Pads

Menstruating behind bars can be a humiliating and stressful experience.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons issued a memo earlier this month explicitly requiring prisons to provide a range of tampons and pads to incarcerated women, free of charge.

While federal prisons already provide limited amounts of feminine hygiene products to inmates at no cost, the availability and quality of supplies vary from facility to facility.

Criminal justice reform activists say female inmates often receive subpar and insufficient amounts of products to manage their periods. That leaves them with two choices: They can use what little money they have to purchase expensive supplies from the prison commissary, or they can plead with correctional officers for more supplies.

The revised policy will ensure that incarcerated women will be able to choose from a variety of feminine hygiene products, including two sizes of tampons (regular- and super-sized), two sizes of maxi pads with wings, and panty liners, said Justin Long, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The memo was released less than a month after the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), was introduced into Congress. A key proposal of the bill is to require federal prisons to provide free sanitary napkins and tampons to women. It also bans the shackling of pregnant inmates, bars the practice of placing pregnant women in solitary confinement, and makes it easier for inmates to stay in touch with their families.

Long said the memorandum was in the planning process well before any legislative proposals. 

In a statement to HuffPost, Booker said he was encouraged by the change, but noted that a “policy memo is just words on a piece of paper unless it’s properly enforced.” He said he would be monitoring to ensure that the Federal Bureau of Prisons implements the policy consistently at all its facilities.

While most prisoners in the U.S. are men, the population of incarcerated women has been growing at a faster rate for decades. The policy change will affect the roughly 12,747 women who are in federal prisons, but not those in state prisons and local jails, where the majority of women are held.

On top of the heartbreak and pain of being incarcerated ... you have the humiliating circumstances of having to ask for hygiene products from male correctional officers.” Andrea James, National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls

Andrea James, founder of the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, remembers menstruating in prison with horror.

She spent two years at a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where the only menstrual products provided to inmates were “tiny, flimsy pads, not sufficient for adult women,” she recalled.

The pads were kept in a crate on the bathroom floor. When the crate was empty, she said, women had to ask correctional officers to refill it. She learned how to strip the pad apart and build makeshift tampons, which she used throughout her sentence.

While brand-name tampons were available at the prison commissary, most women couldn’t afford to purchase them, she said.

“We were paid 12 cents an hour,” she said. “Women were grappling with having enough money to call their children.”

James said every period was stressful because she worried about accidentally leaking onto her clothes or bedsheets.

“It’s just barbaric,” she said. “On top of the heartbreak and pain of being incarcerated and separated from your children, you have the humiliating circumstances of having to ask for hygiene products from male correctional officers.”

Her experience is not an isolated one.

A 2015 report on state prisons in New York found that over half the women interviewed said they were not given enough sanitary pads each month. To get more supplies, women reported having to apply for a medical permit. At one prison ― which closed in 2013 ― women were allegedly required to show authorities a bag filled with used, bloody pads if they needed more than what was allotted to them.

“It’s critically important for any woman who is in custody to have the dignity of having menstrual supplies,” said Gail Smith, director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association of New York, which released the report. “No one should have to beg for them, or ask for them in ways that are humiliating.”

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, author of a forthcoming book on menstrual equality, said that in many cases, the problem is not that the products aren’t in the budget or present in the facility. It’s that women must jump through hoops to access them.

“It is the power dynamic to which women inmates are subject overall ― which is then exacerbated by menstruation,” Weiss-Wolf said. “If it leads to their denial of essential products like tampons and pads ― and we hear frequently that indeed it does ― access becomes a matter of health and human dignity.”

Weiss-Wolf called the new Federal Bureau of Prisons policy a “tremendous advance” that is part of a current movement to treat menstruation as a gender-equity issue.

“Menstrual access bills are gaining traction in many states and cities ― covering schools, shelters and correctional facilities,” she said. “Menstrual equity is proving to be an agenda that legislators and the public alike are willing to support ― and that includes leaders on both sides of the aisle.” 

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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