New York City this week passed legislation that will expand access to menstrual products in the city’s public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities. The historic legislation—which passed unanimously in the city council and is expected to be signed into law by Mayor DeBlasio by the end of the month—is not only the first but the only one of its kind that guarantees free access to menstrual products for women and girls in public space. While this is a step in the right direction, we must remain vigilant about ensuring the enforcement of period protection laws, especially for incarcerated women.
Despite laws that already exist in place to protect incarcerated women from human rights violations such as the withholding of feminine hygiene supplies, reports of misconduct in the prison system are rampant.
The current policy of the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) is to provide menstrual product access for female inmates, but witness accounts report that they are still being withheld. A press release from the office of New York City Councilwoman Ferreras-Copeland reported that the DOC supplies 144 sanitary napkins for every 50 inmates, which amounts to 2.88 napkins per inmate per month.
Ferreras-Copeland said in that press release that this new legislation would erase this old formula and replace it with a policy that will supply products “immediately upon request“—but the actual language of the bill requires the DOC to provide supplies “as soon as practicable,” not immediately. Furthermore, it doesn’t specify how many supplies must be provided. Is one per month enough? Five? Or 2.88? Under this new legislation, prisons will still have the discretion to determine how many supplies they will provide, and how soon they need to supply them.
New York State prisons also promise to supply menstrual products for free, and reportedly distribute 24 pads to women each month. However, the majority of women surveyed in these state prisons said that the amount provided was insufficient—and if they need more, women in one state facility reported that they had to show a bag filled with used pads in order to obtain a special permit allowing additional supplies.
Federal law also requires that female inmates in a federal institution be provided with access to basic necessities, including sanitary supplies. However, the amount and frequency of products to be distributed is up to the discretion of the warden of each facility, and therefore policies differ among federal prisons. In California, no supplies are given out for free unless women are identified as indigent, meaning they have no income whatsoever to pay for their own products—in which case they are given five sanitary napkins a month.
While this new legislation in New York City would, on paper, guarantee that women be provided with a reasonable amount of menstrual supplies upon request in public spaces, ensuring the enforced distribution of supplies in practice at correctional facilities will likely remain a challenge. Given the immense evidence that wardens and guards have not been enforcing the existing federal and state laws requiring provision of menstrual supplies—or finding loopholes to avoid the implementation of the laws—it is hard to imagine that the impact of this law will be any different than the impact of the laws and policies laid down before it.
Shelby McNabb just finished her first year at UCLA, where she is getting her Masters of Public Policy. In her free time, she co-hosts and co-produces a podcast, the Left Ovaries, with her best feminist friends. She is also working on a project to provide incarcerated women with access to feminine hygiene products by donating menstrual cups.