Ensuring Dignity and Health at the Intersection of Incarceration and Menstruation

Just last year, New York City made history by making menstrual products freely available in its public schools, shelters and correction facilities. This year, New York State has the opportunity to do the same in all of the states’ correctional facilities and county jails.

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Lack of access to menstrual hygiene products in the correction setting is an especially troubling issue. All too often, tampons and pads are used as a means to control and demean inmates. At one New York prison, a doctor insisted that inmates show a bag filled with their used pads as proof they needed more. We must not allow this dangerous power dynamic to continue.

New York state lawmaker Linda Rosenthal, who authored New York’s successful tampon tax law, recently introduced Assembly Bill 588A, which would make menstrual products available at no cost to individuals in correction facilities and other punitive custodial settings. It passed in the chamber with extraordinary support, 142-1. Now the State Senate version of the bill, S.6176 has stalled—with just two days to go in the legislative session. New York’s inmates cannot and must be forced to delay their health and dignity as a result of the State Senate’s refusal to take action on this.

For the past two years I have partnered with policymakers across the country, including in New York City and state, to address the economics of menstruation and the critical issues of equity and access. And, more than most, I’ve got a birds-eye view as to why the legislation being advanced by New York state is at the heart of a growing national movement. And why we must push this bill forward.

First, as we all know, the issue itself is by no means new. While menstruation long has been a taboo and “off limits” topic, around the world there are legions of activists and innovators working to raise awareness of the devastating impact caused by lack of access to menstrual products and hygiene. But for too long America has lagged behind in terms of awareness, innovation and policy. It is a problem that has hidden in plain sight here at home—though one that potentially impacts millions.

That’s beginning to change. A dedicated network of activists, journalists, policymakers and others have successfully ratcheted up the national attention.

Legislation to mandate freely available free menstrual products in the correctional setting is but one of the truly meaningful policies we can advance. New York’s bill stands not only to improve the lives of low-income New Yorkers who are incarcerated or otherwise entangled in the criminal justice system, but also to be a catalyst for raising awareness and spurring further reform across the nation and around the world. And make no mistake: the world is watching.

New York state now has the chance to improve the lives of its most vulnerable residents and advance a vital message: that menstruation falls squarely at the intersection of health, economic and justice policy. And that the ability to manage this normal biological function is a necessity, not an entitlement nor a privilege.

No one should have to risk their health, or compromise their dignity, because they menstruate. Period.

Jennifer Weiss-Wolf is a regular contributor to Ms. and author of the forthcoming book Periods Gone Public. Follow her on Twitter at @jweisswolf.

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