Menstruation cycles and products have long been a debated topic in legislation. Should there be a luxury tax on items such as tampons? Should sanitary products be offered for free? Women can’t stop their periods whenever they want to – it isn’t something they can control.
It’s a sentiment that is understood across the country, no more so than in places such as women’s prisons. In August, thanks to senators Cory Booker (NJ), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Kamala D. Harris (CA), and Dick Durbin (IL), a bill called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women was introduced, requiring prisons to provide free hygiene products to women. The bill ensures that “inmates are provided the following products (at no cost to the inmates): tampons (regular and supersize), maxi pads with wings (regular and supersize), and panty liners (regular).”
Providing such an amenity should be a basic human right for self-care; however, not all prisons are complying with the bill. Inmates in certain states are reporting that not only are they still being denied pads and tampons free of charge, but that the products are only being offered at incredibly inflated prices. According to Amy Povah, a former inmate and the director of the CAN-DO Foundation, a box of tampons can cost as much as up to $8 – a price that inmates working incredibly low-wage jobs struggle to afford.
“Tampons [are] an unbelievable luxury that most women can’t buy,” she says. “Tampons, pads, panty liners for menstruation cycle – that should be something that’s a basic function that everyone is provided with, like toilet paper.”
In a 2015 report from the Correctional Association of New York, a female inmate can spend an entire week’s worth of earnings on toilet paper, and 54 percent of inmates have reported that they can’t get access to enough sanitary products.
The struggle for adequate hygienic products is felt nationwide. “There are panty liners in our commissary for purchase; however, I have never seen panty liners provided free of charge,” says an inmate in Aliceville, Alabama. A California inmate also describes the scrutiny they endured when it came to obtaining pads and tampons: “You were given an allowance [of menstrual pads] and they kept track of how often you asked,” they said. “We weren’t allowed to use tampons, which is terrible. As someone who doesn’t use pads on the outside, I was forced to stew in my own fluids.”
Having to publicly show one’s menstruation can completely destroy a woman’s self-esteem. “Providing menstrual hygiene products privately, immediately and for free is also about sending a body-positive message by not perpetuating shame and humiliation and secrecy,” says Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who spearheaded the bill. “Women serving time in prison have value and deserve respect and dignity during their periods.”
It’s even getting to the point where women aren’t the only ones that feel the withholding is intolerable. “This is unacceptable,” says Booker. “It seems the Bureau of Prisons is not properly implementing these guidelines across all prisons and I plan to follow up with them directly to get an answer why.”
Menstruating is not something women choose to do. It isn’t like getting elective cosmetic surgery or buying makeup. Why should women have to pay for it?
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