Women in jails and prisons are forced to use cotton balls and rags as tampon substitutes
Last year, T.J. Shope, an Arizona state representative, became the target of a “Let it Flow” campaign. Women started mailing Shope tampons and pads after he put a stop to House Bill 2222, which would have guaranteed a free and unlimited supply of the products for women in state prison. [Lani Seelinger / Bustle]
At an earlier hearing on the bill, the chairperson of the all-male committee asked the bill’s sponsor, a woman, to “keep your conversation to the bill itself” when she started talking about the cost of a pack of pads. He concluded the hearing by saying, “I’m almost sorry I heard the bill. I didn’t expect to hear pads and tampons and the problems of periods.” [Jimmy Jenkins / KJZZ]
Male legislators aghast at hearing about periods and tampons would almost be funny if they didn’t control access to essential supplies for thousands of incarcerated women. A 2018 report noted that “the U.S. and its states make up 27 of the world’s most carceral places for women.” Recent reforms that have made a dent in the enormous numbers of men in jails and prisons have largely failed to address the number of incarcerated women.
The remarks, and the actions across the country consistent with them, reflect a mindset that menstrual healthcare products are a luxury, rather than a necessity. In many states there is still no guaranteed access to free and unlimited tampons and pads in jails and prisons. Instead, people are given an insufficient number of low-quality products. When this supply runs out, often the only way to get more is from the commissary at market rates or higher, despite prison wages of cents per hour. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]
The consequences are manifold. Women go without, or fashion tampons or pads out of the materials at hand, risking serious infections and lasting harm. Some become prey to corrections officers or other people who control the supply of these healthcare products, or they avoid visits from family or attorneys because of the humiliation of being seen in bloody clothing. Despite everything we know about the degradation at the core of our jails and prisons and immigration detention centers, it is still hard to believe that, at least one case, a woman in the United States in 2018 would have to experience blood running down her leg in the middle of a visit with her lawyer because she could not afford tampons for $6.99 a box in jail. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones]
That woman’s lawyer, Paula Canny, ended up filing a public records request on nearly every California jail last year and learned that although most jails offered free pads, they charged for tampons, often far above market rate. Also, commissary access was limited to once a week so, as Samantha Michaels wrote for Mother Jones, “if someone got her period on a Friday, she might have to wait until the next Thursday to make an order.” When Canny urged sheriffs to make tampons available for free, many refused, citing a state policy that they said left it to their discretion. [Samantha Michaels / Mother Jones] But after Canny sued, the state body that wrote the policy disagreed, and this month changed the regulation to require the provision of “sanitary napkins, panty liners, and tampons as requested.”
There has been slow progress elsewhere as well. Last year, seven states passed laws ensuring access to free tampons and pads in prisons, and the First Step Act made law the Bureau of Prisons policy of guaranteeing access in federal prisons. This month, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill that would require that prison system and county jails provide tampons and pads. A 2015 settlement obligated the state to provide menstrual healthcare products, but the bill’s sponsor said she introduced the measure after hearing about women using cotton balls and rags. [Associated Press]
In Missouri, where the state Department of Corrections provides pads, but not tampons, for free, there is also a bill for expanded access under consideration. Because of existing restrictions, a recent study found, 80 percent of women surveyed make their own tampons out of shirts, bedsheets, even pads. One in four who do so report a vaginal infection. The pads that are issued are almost nonabsorbent. For some women this means that there are days when they have to change their pads every 30 minutes. “It’s frankly not a product that anyone I know would willingly use if they had an alternative,” said the sponsor of the state legislation. [Lexi Churchill / St. Louis Post-Dispatch]
The Arizona Department of Corrections eventually changed its policies to automatically supply each woman in prison with 36 tampons or pads a month for free, up from a blatantly insufficient 12 pads per month and with the addition of access to tampons, which were previously only available through the commissary. The change in policies did, however, come at the expense of passing HB 2222. And as with all things in prison, the question loomed of how officers would be trained on implementing the changes. [Kaila White / AZCentral.com]
Failing to ensure access to tampons and pads isn’t the only way prison officials fail to make basic supplies available to imprisoned women. In October, letters from Arizona’s women’s prison pleaded for attention to another shortage: toilet paper.
“I ran out on Saturday 9/30,” one wrote, “and although I continually asked for [toilet paper], was told they were out. They did have pads that I used as [toilet paper] until Monday 10/1 when they ran out. I then had to use a wash rag until Wed morn.” [Jimmy Jenkins / KJZZ]