By Laura Minton Gonzales
“The jail system and the correctional system was never meant to be a country club.”
- Rep. Richard Pickett of Maine
These are the infamous words of Rep. Richard Pickett of Maine, who voted against a bill that would make having free tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups a right for Maine’s incarcerated menstruators (people in prison who have periods).
You mean, tampons aren’t already free in jail?
Also: What a weird way to define country club status.
Also, again: Why wouldn’t tampons be free?
I had mistakenly believed that inadequate access to hygiene products was a problem in third world countries. I even donated to causes that would help provide girls overseas better access, but I was blind to it happening in America.
The reality of getting menstrual products in prison
In the vast majority of American prisons, incarcerated people receive only a certain allotment of pads or tampons. Those with heavy periods are doomed to run out — and when they inevitably do — they must purchase more from commissary (a store within a prison/jail where inmates can buy food, toiletries, etc.)
But with what money?
Prior to August 2017, a 1996 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) policy dictated that “products for female hygiene needs only had to be made ‘available’” — meaning that incarcerated menstruators had to use their own money to buy tampons, maxi-pads and panty liners.
Inmates can receive funds from family or friends, or as is the case for a large portion of inmates, working low-wage jobs within the prison, which on average pay anywhere from 14 cents to 63 cents an hour. When a box of tampons costs an average of $7, and a 15-minute phone call costs $5, inmates must choose between standard menstrual products or a call home.
When a box of tampons costs an average of $7, and a 15-minute phone call costs $5, inmates must choose between standard menstrual products or a call home.
Legislators are fighting for menstrual necessities
In July 2017, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act was introduced into the senate, which required the BOP to provide free menstrual products in prisons. Shortly after the introduction of the bill, the BOP then issued an operations memo in August 2017 that essentially accomplished the same thing.
The issue was addressed again in 2018, when the First Step Act was passed which called for the free and adequate provision of sanitary pads and tampons in federal prisons.
Beyond the federal level
Here’s the thing: The proposed legislation only takes care of people in federal prisons.
People in federal women’s prisons account for only 13,000 of the 111,500 people in prison across the U.S., meaning the majority of incarcerated of them are in state prisons or local jail. Nearly half are in local jails, and of women in jails across the country, 60 percent have not been convicted of a crime – they are still awaiting trial.
So what’s happening to them? Who has access to menstrual products?
Laws and regulations vary widely from state to state, so that means people on the state level — like our friend Sen. Pickett — are making those decisions.
In my home state of Texas
I live in Texas, which has the biggest prison population in the United States (over 140,000 prisoners) and more prisons than any other state (over 100), so there’s a lot of information here.
There has been a substantial increase in incarcerated women in Texas, with the number of women in jail awaiting trial increasing 48 percent since 2011. (There was an 11 percent increase for men over that same period.) This trend is mirrored nationally. Across America, women now comprise a larger percentage of the prison population than ever before.
As of 2016, there were 12,508 women incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC). In TDCJ, inmates are issued 30 sanitary pads and 6 tampons per month (which is not enough for those with heavy or frequent periods.) In one group study, the most common amount of menstrual flow was about two tablespoons (30 ml). However, the amount varied widely from one person to the next—with the most being two cups (540 ml) in a single period. Each soaked “normal”-sized tampon or pad holds a teaspoon (5ml) of blood.
If they do not have enough, they often improvise in other ways: rolling up pads, toilet paper, or notebook paper to make makeshift tampons, risking Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)
The products can be so low-quality that inmates have to resort to using multiple at a time. If they do not have enough, they often improvise in other ways: rolling up pads, toilet paper, or notebook paper to make makeshift tampons, risking Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS): a rare, but life-threatening complication of bacterial infections. Some of the symptoms of TSS include a sudden high fever, low blood pressure, vomiting or diarrhea, seizures and headaches. Serious cases of TSS can cause shock, renal failure and even death.
To avoid this, an inmate must purchase additional products: A multi pack of tampons (40 ct) costs $4.50, Always pantiliners (20 ct) are $1.35, and maxi pads (22 ct) are $2.45. How do they pay for it?
Surely they must earn it from the work they do in prison.
Texas is one of only four states (along with Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama) that don’t pay inmates for the labor they do within prison.
They justify this by noting that prisoners are compensated for their labor in other ways, by receiving time credits called “Good Time” or “Work Time,” but whether or not these are honored during consideration for early release is not clear.
The TDCJ claims that the prisoners’ free labor pays for their room and board, while also helping them to develop job skills that will help them in joining the workforce upon their release. Some may argue that this is the cost of going to prison, but remember that not everyone imprisoned has committed a heinous crime. There are a great deal of people in prison awaiting trial, falsely imprisoned, or jailed for minor offenses. Regardless of circumstances, access to menstrual care is a basic human right.
Regardless of circumstances, access to menstrual care is a basic human right.
What can you do?
To learn more about your home state’s laws, check out the prisoner wages by state here and find the commissary price list to see how much everything costs in those state prisons.
To directly support incarcerated menstruators, you can donate to:
#cut50 Dignity Campaign, which helps provide menstrual products to prisoners
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which supports legislation
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which supports policies to ensure incarcerated women have access to the appropriate type and quantity of menstrual hygiene products
or find an organization within your community that provides menstrual products to prisons like the Chicago-based Period Collective.
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Laura Minton Gonzales is a contributor to the Public Goods Blog, a publication about health, sustainability and people making an impact. Check it out for a wide range of topics: everything from product reviews and food trends to fair trade and the fluoride controversy.