We often hear of and discuss the rights of many groups of women in American society; women in the workforce, women in education, and women in politics, are, for example, often on the forefront of discussion in the fight for female equality. This can be expected, due to the vast majority of women falling into one of those categories. One group of women, however, is often forgotten in these conversations: women in prison. Particularly, women in prison and their lack of sanitation, stripping them of the basic right to hygienically menstruate.
To begin, it is noteworthy to contextualize the overwhelmingly high number of female imprisonments in the United States. According to The Prison Policy Initiative, as of 2018 the United States accounted for 4% of the world’s female population, yet, held over 30% of the world’s incarcerated women. And, while the overall incarceration rate in the US is falling, the female incarceration rate remains at a historic high.
Although federal prisons passed legislation in 2017 to allow for free menstrual products, reports indicate “that many prisons were failing to provide adequate supplies” and a “2017 Bureau of Prisons report cited many prisoners continue to experience irregular allocation of products, restrictions on availability of product type or size, or having to pay for products.” In Europe, access to sanitary menstrual products is considered a basic human right, however, this does not seem to be the case in the US.
Lack of Menstrual Products is a Health Crisis
According to The Public Health Post, there are physical issues surrounding the lack of sanitation. The products which are provided are often of poor quality and provide minimal protection. Prisoners have the option to purchase hygiene products from a commissary which are often unaffordable due to their extremely low hourly salaries. Incarcerated women are forced to improvise menstrual hygiene supplies, which can lead to many health risks.
Accounts tell of women using toilet paper or maxi pads as tampons, or notebook paper to wipe themselves. These abrasive substitutions can result in bacterial infections, toxic shock syndrome, sepsis, and even death. Along with the physical risks, women in prison face an equal amount of emotional hardship.
The Issue Goes Beyond Physical Health
Lack of sanitary menstrual products results in shame and humiliation; the embarrassment women face during their period is heightened amongst women in prison, who are susceptible to degradation by correctional officers. One account, as reported by the New York Times, told the story of a female prisoner at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison in Westchester County, New York. Christine, 24, had her period and had not been given any pads. After a visit from her father, she was strip-searched as blood ran down her legs. She recalled the cruelty of a female correction officer, “she was telling me how disgusting I was, ‘It’s disgusting,’” she recalled. “I was so embarrassed.”
Another prisoner, who reported from Rikers Correctional Center, recalled an episode a when a correction officer “threw a bag of tampons into the air and watched as inmates dived to the ground to retrieve them, because they didn’t know when they would next be able to get tampons.” Although initiatives have been undertaken to allow incarcerated women the basic right to sanitation, more needs to be done.
Ways to Help
This issue is widespread and affects women in all 50 states. The #LetItFlow campaign, a social campaign launched in 2017, has somewhat alleviated the pain thousands of women face by putting pressure on state legislatures to legally make prisons liable for menstrual products. However, in 2021 only thirteen states have mandates that sanitary products be provided in prisons and jails.
Live Your Dream has advocated for the humane treatment of incarcerated women, and provided ways to take action, including information to contact state representatives to hold them responsible for providing women the basic needs they deserve. It is necessary that the proper steps be taken in order to both shed light on this forgotten group of women, and to give them the resources necessary to avoid the slew of health issues and shame which they face every day due to their period.
Patricia is a recent college graduate who studied the historic and present day injustices women face through her Political Science major. She took courses in specific areas such as South Asia, Eastern Asia, and the United States. Patricia decided to write for Soroptimist in order to educate others on present day issues that directly affect women all around the world. She believes that the fight for female equality can be taken a step further if a light is shed on the hardships women face everyday, and writing for this blog is the perfect opportunity to do so.