By Nayla Lee
Menstruation can be inconvenient even in the best circumstances. However, for individuals who are incarcerated, there are obstacles that can make it much more than a minor stressor. Horror stories range from placing orders for period products that arrive too late (or not at all), to having to prove to correctional officers that their products have been fully soiled in order to receive more of them.
The Correctional Association of New York (CA), an independent, nonprofit criminal justice advocacy organization, was granted a unique opportunity to monitor and make recommendations for improvements to the New York incarceration system. The full report, a 233-page document, is available online on their website, and contains surveys and interviews with incarcerated women, details regarding areas where growth has been seen, and mindful, thorough recommendations. The conclusions are based on information gathered between 2009 and 2013, and informed by the work the group has done since its founding in 1844.
They found that over half of the interviewed women responded that their monthly supply of pads (the only product that is provided without charge) was inadequate to meet their needs.
The study noted that the low quality of these products sometimes required doubling and tripling up in order to prevent bleeding through, which can put individuals at risk for urinary tract infections, rashes from chafing and yeast infections. All of these conditions are especially dangerous to women who may not be able to access adequate healthcare, have poor nutrition, live in dirty areas and are statistically more likely to have autoimmune disorders such as HIV. It is also not always possible to do laundry when necessary, so bloody, stained clothes are often worn, creating problems with odor and bacteria.
It was reported that requesting more pads was arduous, humiliating and often unsuccessful; guards also kept track of how many times a woman requested more products and used that against them. Some women report trading sex with guards in order to access necessary products.
The study also looked into the difficulties that arise when incarcerated women attempt to purchase menstrual products on their own, saying, “Prices for pads and tampons in prison commissaries vary widely and are prohibitive for women with few financial resources and outside support.”
They report that it is often prohibited to receive products such as pads, tampons, and heating pads through the mail, meaning that they must be purchased at the commissary. CA calculated that the cost can come out to a week’s pay for individuals who are earning just 17 cents an hour (which the report calls “a common prison wage”).
Even the hit Netflix show “Orange is the New Black” calls attention to this, with $10 boxes of tampons and wages of 10 cents an hour, a $25 apiece black market, and women stuffing toilet paper inside themselves to stop the flow.
An unexpected conflict related to the inadequate supply of menstrual products is that sometimes pads are used for purposes such as cleaning up dirt and spills and steadying uneven chairs and tables. The creative problem solving that is necessary for the inmates speaks volumes about the conditions they are dealing with, all in the context of these extremely limited resources. No one should have to choose between having enough period supplies or living in a clean space.
This problem does not just affect individuals who are incarcerated in federal prisons. Privately-owned facilities like the Northwest Detention Center, which is only a 13-minute drive from the Puget Sound campus, face similar issues. Although the facilities are intended to house detainees for short amounts of time, this is not always the case. In an article published on Bust, Gwen Berumenin notes that detainees “are not given proper access to water, toilet paper, or even menstrual products such as pads and tampons,” and that this is further exacerbated by privatization, which de-incentivizes transparency and access to care.
Legislation has been proposed in the past few years to rectify the numerous ways that the practice of withholding period products violates incarcerated people’s basic rights to dignity and hygiene. In 2016, New York became the first city in the nation to pass legislation that guarantees free access to tampons and pads in prisons, shelters and public schools, though only in the city itself.
Menstrual products are necessities for nearly half the population, but are rarely treated as such, with planners and policymakers expressing concern about the cost. New York City Council Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who spearheaded the measure, says, “nobody wonders how much the city spends on toilet paper.”
This movement for access in New York is part of a larger overall movement for free products in state-owned facilities and to end the “tampon tax” wherein pads and tampons are labeled as luxuries.