Most women don’t think twice about where they are going to acquire menstrual products, yet that is not the case for incarcerated women in prison, jails, detention centers and women’s shelters across the United States. Incarcerated individuals and other people in the criminal justice system often have to resort to begging or bargaining with staff[1]for basic hygiene needs. Thirty-eight states do not require prisons to provide menstrual products[2] to incarcerated people. The voices of incarcerated women are not broadcast as loudly as their male counterparts. Now that the influx of women coming to prison has vastly increased,  women’s unique issues need attention with gender responsive policies that take their specific needs into account.

Historically, menstruation has been stigmatized, ignored and not included in everyday topics of discussion, despite that once a month women – and transgender and non-binary people who menstruate – experience their menstrual cycle for an average of seven years[3]. Period awareness has progressed in recent years as activists have worked hard to push for menstrual equity, such as urging states[4] to exempt menstrual hygiene products from sales taxes.

The communities of incarcerated women not only face stigma but have little or no access  to varied products to ensure proper menstrual supplies each month. One might think that because a prison is supposed to uphold the care, custody, and control model, that they would have a sufficient amount of products available to sustain women’s menstrual cycles while in custody.Unfortunately that is not the case.

During the beginning years of my incarceration, we were not allowed to receive menstrual products from packages, vendors, or have them brought in via visits. We were only allotted the 12 pack sanitary pads given out once a month and when many women, including myself, experienced rashes and skin irritations from them, we had no other choice of products. Some of us just used a wad of toilet paper in lieu of the pads. Having a limited amount of products also caused a big issue because I suffered with fibroids and bleed heavily and for more than 7 days. I would have to beg other women for their pads or sometimes even barter to get them.

Despite the passing of the nation’s first legislative package ”The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in June 2016”  which aims to create better visitation policies for primary caretaker parents, effectively ban the shackling and solitary confinement of pregnant people, and ensuring access to menstrual products for women in public school, shelters and correctional facilities.   This law only applies to federal prisoners and most prisoners are under state jurisdiction. Out of the 231,000 women and girls[5] in correctional facilities, only 16,000 of them are in federal prisons. States have passed laws to provide incarcerated people with menstruation products, but often provide no funding, therefore the burden for the products falls on the schools, jails, and homeless shelters. People who menstruate are still being subjected to lack of products, abuse by male officers surrounding their cycles and  period shaming.

Menstrual equity falls at the intersection of sound health, economic and educational policy Access to these products should be safe and affordable. They should be free to those who can’t afford them. Incarcerated women made on average 7 dollars every two weeks and shouldn’t have to make a decision to buy menstrual products over food for our basic needs.

I am looking to bring these issues back to the forefront of what incarcerated women are still facing throughout this nation. We need more awareness and better solutions, with policies that guarantee menstrual equity.

My plan is to start with the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where I was housed and provide these women with more availability of products. I am currently in conversations  with some college students who are devoted to this cause and how we can achieve this. The plan is to provide educational materials, products, and take surveys on exactly what their needs are so that we can better serve them, especially in this pandemic.

If any of my readers are concerned and what to help please contact me via email. Let’s keep this conversation going and bring about change and dignity for our sisters behind the walls.

To read more about menstrual equity in prisons:

[1] “The Unequal Price of Periods: Menstrual Equity in the United States” (ACLU and Period Equity)
[2] “Incarcerated People Deserve the Dignity of Menstrual Equity” (Ms. Magazine, 15 November 2019, Kimberly Haven)
[3] “Celebrating menstruation, from menarche to menopause” (UNFPA, 24 May 2018)
[4] “It’s Not Just the Tampon Tax: Why Periods are Political” (New York Times, 22 July 2018, Karen Zraick)
[5] “Because Most Locked-Up Women are in Jail, not Prison, State Reforms Often Fail to Reach Them” (Witness LA, 31 October 2019, Taylor Walker)

Roslyn Smith, V-Day’s Beyond Incarceration Project Manager, has been writing blog posts as part of V-Day’s 2019 Spotlight on Women in Prison, Detention Centers, and Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In her newly expanded blog, Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration, Roz writes an ongoing series about her experiences as a formerly incarcerated women, including short and long dispatches on prison reform and prison abolition, often highlighting news articles around the experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, pieces highlighting what she’s thinking about, what she’s worried about, including interviews with formerly incarcerated women, stories from prison, visions of a world without prison, how violence against women leads to women coming to prison and then the violence they experience there, all the while highlighting important data and facts that shed light on incarceration and our commitment to restorative justice models. You will hear from women whose lives have been profoundly impacted by the prison and detention system on issues as far ranging as: trauma and abuse; shackling; transgender experiences; dignity; health and mental health; experiences of long term inmates; the youth/school to prison pipeline; the experiences of mothers and children navigating the immigration system; higher education in prison; and reentry and technology.

Read more from the Dispatches from Beyond Incarceration series here