A few days ago, I caught NPR’s interview with Piper Kerman, author of the recently released Orange Is the New Black: My Year in Women’s Prison. In the memoir, Kerman describes the handy tricks she learned in prison, like making “cheesecake” out of graham crackers and Laughing Cow cheese, and using maxi pads to clean her cell and make dildos.
This last struck me not as a neat trick but an amazing luxury. Why? Having reported on prison issues for the past four years, I’ve heard one recurring refrain from women prisoners: There are never enough feminine hygiene products to go around.
In many facilities, women must buy pads or tampons from the prison commissary, sometimes waiting a week or more for their supplies to arrive. Women without external contacts to send them cash are out of luck.
The hygiene-product shortage amounts to far more than an annoying inconvenience. Women described to me the discomfort and smell, especially in the summer, of living in close quarters with other women who are often menstruating simultaneously.
Since the advent of the recession, budget cuts at prisons often hit women-specific services first, and “fringe” benefits like feminine hygiene products are some of the first to go.
“Tampons are $5.00 and pads are around $3.20,” Vicki Rosepiler, a prisoner at Danbury Federal Medium Security Prison, told me. “You can get five free pads per week and three rolls of toilet paper, but that is the extent of help with hygiene. This was not the case 10 years ago.”
Susan Jenkins, who spent a week in Riverside Womens Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, told me that the shortage often causes tension among women.
When I was moved after the required quarantine period for testing for TB, I was approached by a few women asking for pads. My cellmates told me to keep them for myself and that the women always approach the new arrivals.
Creative solutions abound: Women described learning the best techniques for molding tampons and pads out of toilet paper (using as little of it as possible, since TP is also rationed). But sometimes guards won’t allow use of the homemade kind. Earleen, the mom of a prisoner at West Valley Detention Center in California, told me,
They are given three pads for their period … some of the women have had to have homemade ones made from toilet paper removed.
At some facilities, there are no giveaways at all. “The women have to buy their personal hygiene,” Patricia Williams in the Victorville, California federal prison to me. “If you don’t have any funds… Oh wellllllllll.”
Pads and tampons should not be viewed as fringe benefits, luxuries deserved only by prisoners with cash to spare. Regardless of budget cuts, prisons must maintain a certain basic level of comfort and dignity for their inmates. Without that, even the most delicious of graham-cracker cheesecakes can’t make prison conditions humane.