The ugly truth about what it's like to get your period in prison

By Maya Khamala

Orange is the New Black has never been my favourite show, and it’s not because of any lack in terms of acting, premise, or storyline. No, the only reason I’ve ever temporarily avoided the show has more to do with its glimmer of likeness to real life. In short, I’ve always understood the show as a social justice experiment in itself, as Hollywoodized and problematic as it may or may not be: the very fact that a show all about the lives of marginalized and incarcerated women exists, most of them women of colour, is testament to its purpose. But watching it to unwind? Not sure about that. 

One such glimmer of likeness to real life that stood out to me was the episode that explores the sheer cruelty, absurdity, horror, powerlessness (my list goes on) of charging incarcerated women funds they don’t have for menstrual products, to the point where they end up doing illegal things to get said funds, at the same time risking longer sentences if found out. Oh, and the corporation that runs the prison has decided not to increase the number of free pads available, even though the number of inmates has practically doubled.

In other words: maybe the patriarchy has chewed you up and spat you out, maybe you’ve been sexually abused by your father, maybe you sold some drugs. Now we’re going to lock you up and deprive you of anything with which to soak up your menstrual blood. The powers that be do not lose sleep at night because your bodies bear the brunt of misogyny. 

Popcorn, anyone?

In the real world 

I’m bringing all of this up because Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards very recently signed a new law that will (gasp) allow women in prison access to as many tampons and sanitary napkins as they need—free of charge. Women will also get as much soap and toothpaste as needed under the new law, which goes into effect August 1st. The law also places restrictions on male correctional officers doing pat-downs and cavity searches of woman inmates (don’t even get me started on this). And here some people were thinking that being jailed was solely about being deprived of access to the outside world. Currently in the US, incarcerated women are given a supply of menstrual products for free, but sometimes have to pay if they need more beyond that supply. 

While serving her 15-month sentence in Maryland's only women’s prison, Kimberly Haven couldn't get the products she needed for her period, so she used toilet paper. As a result, after her release in 2015, she suffered toxic shock syndrome and had to get an emergency hysterectomy. That’s surgery to remove your uterus—an emergency surgery to remove your uterus. According to former Maryland inmates, some women in similar situations have had even more than their health and dignity stripped of them, refusing visits from lawyers or family out of the humiliation caused by bleeding through their prison scrubs. Former inmates have also testified that correctional officers have withheld menstrual products to control inmates “as part of an officer-prisoner power dynamic.” Lawmakers in the state have expressed shock at the entire issue, which has clearly been going on since forever.

A recent willingness to look more at the issue on a national level (and indeed, at “women’s” issues in general), has been fuelled in part by the #MeToo movement.

A trending issue 

Amy Fettig, Deputy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project (ACLU), (which works to make sure prisons and detention centres comply with the constitution and international human rights principles, imagine that) says the issue has emerged as part of a larger discussion about incarcerated women that just wasn't occurring 5 or 10 years ago. 

In 2016, New York became the nation's first city to require free tampons and sanitary pads in correctional facilities. Following this, last summer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced that women in its facilities, too, would be guaranteed free menstrual pads and tampons. But because the majority of incarcerated women are in state prisons and local jails unaffected by this policy change, less than 10% of women actually stood to gain anything. And then, in August, The Bureau followed up, issuing a memo mandating that menstrual products be available at no cost to all female inmates in all federal institutions. I can’t help but wonder who will enforce this. Recently, several states have introduced legislation or proposals that address their plans (or lack thereof) around this issue.

Around the country 

In Maryland, both chambers passed legislation March 1 to put this “required” free access to menstrual products into law. 

In Arizona, the corrections department recently said it would triple the number of free sanitary napkins it provides each month (tampons must still be purchased) in order to pave the way for a proposal to provide unlimited free menstrual products. As it stands, a 16-count box of pads for inmates requires 21 hours’ worth of pay, and a 20-count box requires 27. In February, state Rep. Athena Salman presented her bill to change this. The bill sadly passed out of the all-male committee by one vote.

In Nebraska, corrections officials have avoided the legislative process by announcing that generic tampons and pads will be provided for free and that they will only charge inmates for name-brand supplies. 

In Colorado, a provision was included in the state budget bill last year to provide incarcerated women free access to tampons.

The ugly reality persists despite a small collection of policy changes 

Today, women comprise 13% of the country's local jail population, but according to activist Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, American prisons are designed for men, who have been incarcerated more, historically. Horror stories about menstruating inmates continue to circulate regardless of location or intended changes to policy. Weiss-Wolf cites a viral video showing a Kentucky judge scolding prison staff after a defendant entered the courtroom without pants, claiming she was denied menstrual products for the 3 days she had been in custody.  

A 2016 ACLU report, Reproductive Health Behind Bars in California, includes the account of an inmate named Halle who says, "Pads are not dispensed as they are supposed to be. We are forced to reuse them, we are forced to beg for what we need, and if an officer is in a bad mood they are allowed to take what we have and say we are hoarding." 

A 2015 Correctional Association of New York report detailed a practice at one prison in New York which required menstruating prisoners to show their dirty pads as evidence that they needed more. 

Prison-induced PTSD, anyone? If you’re looking for voices to amplify, you might start with the voices of women currently stuck in the bowels of the US prison system, may they survive and live to tell their tales.

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