For many female inmates, the scarcity of pads and tampons in jails is humiliating and a major health risk. A New York City councilwoman is trying to change that by ensuring free menstrual products for women incarcerated in the state.
Image via Simone Bechetti / Stocksy
For women incarcerated in America's prison industrial complex, practicing proper menstrual hygiene is almost impossible. That's because, criminal justice advocates say, inmates are supplied with an inadequate amount of pads or denied feminine hygiene products altogether.
But New York City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland hopes to change that. After months of planning, Ferreras-Copeland formally introduced her long-awaited package of bills on Tuesday that would make menstrual products free and accessible in correctional facilities, as well as in public schools and homeless shelters. The legislation, also sponsored by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, is the latest action in a concerted effort to attain menstrual equity for women denied access to what advocates consider a necessary health item comparable to toilet paper.
"[No] inmate should have to jump through hoops, face illness, or feel humiliated because they cannot access pads or tampons," Ferreras-Copeland said last week.
The New York City Department of Corrections currently provides 144-count boxes of thin, non-adhesive pads per 50 inmates, per week, in the Rose M. Singer Center—the only women's facility in the Rikers Island jail complex. Name brand tampons and pads are also available at the center's commissary, where feminine hygiene products can cost up to $7.65.
"Do the math on that," says Jill Miller, New York chapter director for Days for Girls International, which provides washable feminine hygiene kits to women and girls in need. "That's 2.8 pads per woman."
How much the corrections department distributes is determined by what council members call an obscure formula; in the end, they say, it allocates an inadequate supply. Ferreras-Copeland's legislation would eliminate this formula and instead require the Department of Corrections uses to provide pads immediately upon request.
Former Rikers Island inmates have told Miller that jail guards are "consistently inconsistent" with giving incarcerated women access to menstrual products. Sometimes it's because they're not enough of pads to go around. Most times, however, it's because guards want to punish an inmate and reinforce the power structure by denying access—an abuse of power advocates say is rampant across all prison systems.
Inmates could buy tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products at a facility's commissary. But for the 72 percent of female inmates living in poverty, that's unaffordable. So they're left to ask for more pads from the very people who deny them in the first place, advocates say. And, Miller says, former inmates in New York City have reported being forced to show their soiled pads to their guard just to prove they needed more supplies. Women incarcerated in New York State's prison system have reported much the same.
"It's humiliating," she says.
Women in jails and prisons should be afforded some basic human dignity and should not be put into a position in which their health is jeopardized.
A 2015 Correctional Association of New York report found that state prison inmates, who receive 24 pads per month, would stretch out their supply for the duration of their period—sometimes using one for the week. Other women said they would double up on pads during heavy days because the pads they would receive are too thin and barely absorbent. The ACLU of Michigan filed a federal class action lawsuit in December 2014 against Muskegon County for "inhumane and degrading policies" on behalf of inmates who reported similar experiences.
These coping practices lead to poor menstrual hygiene, advocates say. And poor menstrual health, research shows, can lead to serious infections like bacterial growth in the vagina or toxic shock syndrome.
"Women in jails and prisons should be afforded some basic human dignity," says Michigan-based criminal defense attorney Tiffany DeBruin, "and should not be put into a position in which their health is jeopardized."
Existing case law reinforces a prisoner's constitutional right to basic cleanliness. Judges in 1989's Carver v. Knox County, Tennessee, 1997's Carty v. Farrelly and 2005's Atkins v. County of Orange all ruled that failing to provide or denying access to sanitary items violates the Eight Amendment, which enshrines a prisoner's right to a "basic human need"—i.e. toilet paper and menstrual products—in its Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.
But correctional officers continue to violate the law because they're not punished when they do so, says David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. That lack of accountability—among other reasons—has allowed the problem to become rampant and systemic.
So while legislative efforts are commendable, he says, a mechanism needs to be in place that appropriately reprimands staff for violating the law—and a prisoner's civil rights. "There has to be accountability and consequences," says Fathi.
New York City is not the only region to address the issue, though. Wisconsin's Dane County recently passed a resolution introduced by Board Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner that would make menstrual products readily available through coin-free dispensers in eight country buildings, including its correctional facility. Currently, the Dane County Sherriff's Office provides inmates with free pads only upon their request.
"That really puts the burden on the person incarcerated to make that request to someone they may not be comfortable with," says Wegleitner, who was inspired by Ferreras-Copeland's efforts to provide free tampons and pads to public school students.
Wegleitner's pilot program also follows efforts by Wisconsin State Representative Melissa Sargent to make tampons and pads free and accessible in public schools and publicly funded buildings—including private prisons receiving state funds. Sargent's statewide bill, introduced in the fall, is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled legislature this year.
Sargent, though, says she determined to reintroduce her bill next legislative session. After all, Sargent believes women, even those incarcerated, have a right to proper hygiene.
"I don't see feminine hygiene products as a luxury," she says.