In Prison, Toilet Paper Is the New Tampon

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.

Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/sfllaw/1327512864/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

Comments

  1. I say we donate Diva Cups to women in prisons. They rule and are reusable! I don’t think you could use them as weapons either. (www.divacup.com if you don’t know what they are)

    • erin krakenberg says:

      I would imagine that anything like a cup that goes inside you, would be considered a place for inmates the hide contraband that would be out. I have been an inmate in more than a few facilities, federal and state, I’m ashamed to say, but yes the conditions are absolutely atrocious. for myself being a woman that has really never wornon anything but , making a switch to pads was absolutely dehumanizing being forced to sit in your own blood and not even have enough to go around was awful. worst part was is I had plenty of money in my commissary account but was not offered an option of buying pads or tampons. it was just not something that was offered on the commissary menu you were forced to deal with what they would give you which was awkward to having to ask a male officer for more pads having to tell him that your flow was heavy was embarrassing to say the least because they would ask why you need more. something really has to be done about the conditions that females face when they are incarcerated. another big issue was that you were only given one set of clothing to wear for 3 days in a row. and you’re not getting underwear to stick the pad to. Underwear also has to be bought and like they said it takes over a week just to order anything. many women are coming off of birth control and things of that nature and are having terrible night sweats and they have to walk around with wet clothing. and not to mention your hair is always wet as well your towel that they give you is paper thin and of course there’s no blow dryers so they parade you into court with wet hair bleeding all over yourself usually and of course no bra either it’s humiliating!! needless to say the men do not go through any of these tortured.

  2. Does this seem completely ridiculous to anyone else? How is it that hygienic needs can be considered luxuries? I’m sorry, but three pads would last me less than one day. What are these women supposed to do if they have no commissary money, no outside support?

    This is an outrage. Something has to be done! How can people like myself help out with this cause? What can we do to ensure that women–criminals or not–are treated like human beings?

  3. I have never heard of something so ridiculous as to punish a woman for having a period. For all the ridiculous things that are funded by the prisons and our government, a woman’s personal hygiene should not be an option, it should be a given. Women prisoners should not have to pay for their own tampons, and should not have them rationed. They should be readily available, and supplied free. Male prisoners are not charged for their toilet paper, and don’t have to go without wiping their butt. Why should a woman have to wear a feminine product longer that it should be safely worn, or go without because it’s not provided? It just goes to show the discrimination of women at every level. Even when she has had her rights taken away from her by the state, she still isn’t treated equally to a male prisoner.

  4. This is outrageous. The markup for pads and tampons for women with the least ability to pay even the retail cost is pure greed. I understand that resources for correctional facilities are limited, and that hundreds of women menstruating (especially at the same time) could become financially prohibitive, but it’s a medical/scientific fact that women menstruate and that women tend to cycle together when in close proximity. Ignoring it is like ignoring the fact that you need water to live.

    I’m reminded of the Stanford prison experiment. To treat prisoners like animals will almost ensure that they act as such. And, as the post mentions, it creates tension among inmates. While many other cultures exist comfortably without disposable feminine hygiene products, it is something that has become a basic comfort in American women’s lives.

    I wonder if Luna Pads or Diva Cup would consider donating to women’s prisons, and if that wouldn’t ease some of the tensions and discomfort over the issue of disposable feminine hygiene products.

  5. Maya, Our negligence and mistreatment of people behind bars in this country is a disgrace. For women to have to buy their hygience products is wrong on so many levels. As Alexandra and Danielle suggest, we should donate or pressur the manufacturers of sanitary products to donate supplies to women who are incarcerated. It may benefit the companies by developing brand loyalty in the women who will buy them after they’re released.

  6. I have to say that this is absolutely disgusting and inhumane. Tampons and pads aren’t some kind of luxury, they are a necessity. The penal system is so worried about cost why don’t they see if women are interested Diva cups and reusable cloth pads that you can wash out. These are good alternatives that save money however, no matter the reason these women should not be denied sanitary products.

  7. Yikes… that meets my definition of cruel and unusual punishment.

  8. Truly insane to deny these women simple care items.

    I agree that reusable products should be explored if they are worried about costs. Of course, since men are generally in charge of this stuff, I doubt they even know of their existence. There is often reluctance about these products by the general public at first (that unnecessary ew reaction) but it sounds like these women would be up for anything other than what they have.

  9. HeatherH says:

    Do you want to know what I feel is really cruel and inhumane? Enduring the same conditions you describe, except YOU YOURSELF are the one responsible for buying YOUR OWN feminine products and you can't afford them. Guess what?? When you're a poor college student on the run and you get your period in between classes, but you have to go to your job so you can afford your tuition and you don't want to be late? You know what you do? You hope and pray you come upon a bathroom with some toilet paper in it, so you can stick it in your underwear and go to work.

    Get a clue! Get a life! Stop blaming other people because there are not enough tampons for you. Guess you should have thought about that when you started menstruating….Oh, and breaking the law.

    • AMEN Heather!

    • erin krakenberg says:

      more than half of women behind bars… are there because their boyfriend was guilty of a crime and they just didn’t do anything about it. most of them actually did not commit the crime themselves. the rest of the women usually suffer from somekind mental illness or drug addiction which are both diseases you ignorant woman!!

    • Good point. I was always fortunate enough to have a family that could pay for everything for me but I am 26 now and having to pay for things on my own. I do not have a job because I am getting a higher education. I have my BA but I want to get into the ranks as an EMS provider so I quit my job to become a paramedic.

      Let’s see, I maxed out my credit card because of school books and tuition and I don’t have enough to pay for this summers tuition. My card needs to get paid soon or else I’m screwed! I just got my period and fortunately I have enough products but what happens next month when it runs out? I wish I could get 3-5 free pads a month. That would save tons of money!

      Prisoners can work too. They can get a job within the facility to pay for their supplies like the rest of us. They can also use toilet paper like the rest of women do when we are out in public and don’t have pads or tampons on us.

      We just do what we have to do when not supplied at our moment of need. Why is it fair for prisoners to get supplies for free and as much as they need/want when me, as a hard working student can’t get them for free? Not fair!

  10. publish it says:

    i think it is wrong on so many levels. our president thinks waterboarding is cruel and unusaul punishment to do to a terrorist it is way beyond cruel and unusual punishment to deny women or men hygene products. you would think that the health board would not allow this but they do. i was denied a pad or a tampon in jail and underwear because i was on suicide watch i am so mad and desturb i couldnot believe that they could treat me like that.that kind of treatment would cause anyone to want to commit suicide. i guess if i was a terrorist i would have been treated more humane thanks to our president. but im not im an american citizen and got treated worse than most people would treat their animals.

  11. Wow… 3-5 pads for your ENTIRE period? Sometimes mine lasts for close to two weeks. Mind you, this is because I have ovarian cysts, but still. I can go through 3 pads in a single DAY of that because I bleed so heavily. This is completely imhumane! I know they are prisoners, but this is for basic sanitation.

  12. The ACLU should be involved with this. Having limited sanitary products creates a health hazard. Imagine stained and smelly clothes, chairs, and beds. Whose bright idea was this? Gee, I wonder if they deny toothbrushes? Oh wait – MEN use those, so I guess not.

  13. just think about not having any underwear to put a pad on and they keep it so cold and your only alloud one sheet one very thin blanket they give no shampo just plain soap and a very little barbar comb if you have long hair its hell trying to get a comb threw it so you just pass washing your hair you still have to take a shower with one little towel your so cold when you get out and make one statment you wish you were dead oh my God they take you strip you down but ass naked they put a wrap around turtle suit on you and your in one open cell all lit up windows all over everyone can see every move you make then you really wish you were dead

  14. That is just plainly rude and sick.

  15. I have never thought about that situation but that really sux. I feel bad for those women. That stuff is necessity not a luxury.

  16. broke student says:

    I mean…they broke the law and should be allowed to get it for free…i’m a poor college student struggling to eat daily, and afford these expensive feminine products…I should get them for free too! Yeah?

    • I AGREE! i dont break the law and i have to afford them .. they chose to break the law they should have to do the same!

      • erin krakenberg says:

        I did not choose to break the law my boyfriend broke the law and I had no idea even what money laundering meant but I still spent 6 months trying to prove it. Ahhh, ignorance is bliss isn’t it….not really

    • Get a clue. You are not behind bars and have the freedom to go to the nearest Walmart and buy the cheap store-brand products if you need to. They are completely reliant on the system. What else do you suggest should be denied the prisoners? Should they be put in cages without toilets and be forced to live like pigs in their own filth? That would be unamerican, so thank God we have checks in the system. They should not be deliberately humiliated for being women by being denied basic menstrual hygiene products.

    • J. McCabe says:

      For someone who says she is in college, you have A LOT to learn about how The System works. There are more than a few people in prison who are INNOCENT, and I don’t mean NOT GUILTY. Many times their only crime was being poor or having darker skin. Others are there because they were mistakenly identified by an eye witness or because of an overzealous prosecutor. Understand this, the police lie and D.A.s need to get re-elected. Hope you never are in the wrong place at the wrong time and find yourself on the wrong side of the bars with C.O.s as spiteful as you.

    • erin krakenberg says:

      you are a free person you have the luxury of being able to borrow , or go to the church for help or get the food pantry they give out things like, pads, toilet paper, and all sorts of hygiene products I think you I need to learn how to speak up in your community and get a little assistance these women can’t get anything from anywhere they are prisoners they have no options whatsoever. you also have the option of doing a small yard sale if you need a couple extra dollars free people have many many options you’re not talking about people with options you’re talking about women that are just forced to live in this way. your situation is easily avoidable. you really need to explore your options and start getting out into the community.

    • I totally agree and I am in the same boat, a poor student. I want them for free. These products are very expensive and sometimes I can’t afford food because my money has to go to pads and tampons.

  17. I think that it is disgusting that they have to buy their own or use 3 for 1 period!
    Women can’t help that they get their period!
    Just because they may have made mistakes doesn’t mean that they aren’t allowed Famine products!
    I think the jail should prove women with enough pads, tampons, or whatever they need to last them their period & so they can maintain a minimal amount of personal hygiene!

  18. It’s important to create awareness to this problem by helping women lead healthier lives by having access to feminine care products in a dignified manner-even if they are incarcerated. Since most school and community groups are reluctant to collect these much-needed products businesswoman Ann Germanow, owner of The Scensible Source Company, originated Pad Party. Pad Parties are social events for women-only and the entrance fee is a box (or two) of feminine care products that are then donated to organizations for distribution to women/girls in need. Additionally simply add a feminine care collection drive to an existing charitable event, book club meeting, educational workshop or social occasion, will help make a big difference!

  19. I can’t image why they would even care if the women make their own tampons. So they have no money and can’t make their own. well lets just hope they can change their panties.

  20. Buy pads and tampons? Give me a break! I am sure this rule was made by A MAN who never had cramps or heavy bleeding.
    Do they even know what a heavy bleeding is?
    I am totally against luxury in prison and I don’t think the tax payers should spend unneccessary money since it’s not a hotel, but pads?! Are you serious?! Toilet paper serving as pads?! Do THE MEN who made that rule even know what a period is? Hell! I hope they get painkillers for the cramps too because I know how terrible cramps can be! Why don’t they forbid pillows and blankets as well?
    Source: I am a WOMAN and I’ve been having periods for 18 years.

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