Not only has the #MeToo movement toppled powerful men and highlighted the severity of sexual assault in the United States, it has brought to light a lesser known yet still serious issue: the lack of feminine hygiene products for incarcerated women.
Growing recognition of the lack of access to pads and tampons in prisons and jails has created a wave of measures by Congress, state legislatures, city councils, and prisons across the country, from Arizona to Maryland to New York, all of which aim to supply inmates with free menstrual products.
“It makes me feel like we’re making progress ... [and that] the country in general is waking up to the idea that maybe we need to be doing more for our female population,” says Monica Cooper, a former inmate and co-founder of the Maryland Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to support ex-offenders’ successful reentry into society. “This is just one step in the right direction for women and girls who find themselves in the penal system.”
The lack of menstrual products for female prisoners has been a largely overlooked issue despite the fact that women are the fastest growing demographic of the prison population, with an 834 percent growth over the past 40 years, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based think tank. This neglect of a basic health-care need forces inmates to make their own products out of various materials, rendering them vulnerable to infection and disease.
“It is truly undignified for a woman to have to make menstrual hygiene products for herself,” says Ms. Cooper. “Imagine how that feels ... [when] you have to cut up pillow cases and all sorts of things to keep ... from having an accident. That’s embarrassing for a woman to have an accident and have to walk around like that.”
The emergence of recent social movements has raised the profile of the issue and propelled women’s and prisoner rights advocates to take action, says Amy Fettig, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
“With the #MeToo movement [and in] the Black Lives Matter movement, with women’s leadership coming to the forefront, all of that has led to raising women’s concerns, and that’s why we’ve seen legislation introduced ... for women, especially vulnerable women who don’t get representation,” says Ms. Fettig.
Last year, a group of Democratic US senators introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Shortly after the bill’s introduction, the Federal Bureau for Prisons drafted a memo making tampons and pads available free of charge to federal prisoners.
In 2016, New York City became the nation’s first city to put into law a requirement for free access to pads and tampons in homeless shelters, schools, and correctional facilities.
At the state level, Maryland and Virginia both passed laws in March requiring free menstrual products for incarcerated individuals. In Connecticut, Alabama, and Arizona lawmakers also introduced bills.
When Arizona introduced its bill, the state’s corrections department immediately tripled the number of pads per woman per month from 12 to 36 to head off proposals to provide unlimited hygiene products for free. Prior to the changes, women who needed extra pads had to ask an officer, who could deny the request as a way to embarrass and exert control over the inmates, says Fettig.
Although all the bills passed so far have had bipartisan support, some lawmakers argued that the issue should be handled at the correctional level and that the bills would be an extra tax burden.
Fettig, however, says the Constitution demands the new laws.
“[These are] health care need[s], straight up, and under our Constitution we have to provide for the basic health-care needs of people who are incarcerated because they can’t do it themselves,” says Fettig. “Women should not be begging for tampons or pads in America’s prisons and jails.”
Despite a growing awareness of the issue, Fettig believes there is still much to be done to ensure that all incarcerated women in the US have immediate access to hygiene products.
“What’s really important is that [we] require the institutions to report their conduct and that the state legislators and city councils hold these institutions to account.”