Lawmakers Across the U.S. Want Menstrual Equity for Incarcerated Women

Women incarcerated in Arizona state prisons are currently allowed only 12 free menstrual pads a month and can possess a maximum of 24 pads at a time when they are on their periods, Mother Jones reports. To acquire more pads or tampons, which are not automatically provided, female inmates must purchase them, despite the low, 15-cents-an-hour base pay for Arizona prisoners.

Arizona Rep. Athena Salman (D-Tempe) introduced House Bill 2222 last week to ensure that women prisoners will receive free feminine hygiene products. During a hearing of the bill in front of the House Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs committee, a number of former inmates from the Perryville state prison, the only women’s prison in Arizona, testified about the conditions in the facility. According to Arizona Central, Sue Ellen Allen said officers have denied requests for more pads. Adrienne Kitcheyan, another former inmate, said, “Bloodstained pants, bartering, and begging for pads and tampons was a regular occurrence.”

Arizona is not the only state trying to guarantee free access to feminine hygiene products. Last year, Colorado added an amendment in the state’s budget bill that would provide tampons to female inmates.

Rep. T.J. Shope (R-Coolidge), the chairman of the Rules Committee, recently said he does not intend to hear the bill, which effectively kills the bill, according to Arizona Central. However, the Arizona Department of Corrections announced Feb. 14 that it will triple the minimum number of pads that are given to inmates, from 12 to 36.

In Maryland, a bill introduced to the General Assembly at the end of January would require state prisons to provide free pads and tampons to inmates on demand. The bill currently has support from 33 state senators. And in Nebraska, a policy change from the Department of Correctional Services in January announced that female prisoners will be able to get tampons and pads without cost. They will also be able to purchase brand-name products at the prison canteen. In Virginia, House Bill 83 intends to provide feminine hygiene products such as napkins, pads, and tampons, without charge.

While several states are moving to make menstrual products free, women in federal prisons are guaranteed free menstrual products after the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed this policy last summer. However, the majority of incarcerated women are housed in state facilities—female inmates only make up 6.8 percent of the federal prison population. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 99,000 women are housed in state prisons and another 96,000 are in state jails, compared to the 14,000 in federal facilities.

One issue inmates face is having to go through prison guards, most of whom are male, to receive pads or tampons. In a case represented by the ACLUParsons v. Ryan, that centered on health care in Arizona prisons, “clients have reported asking for menstrual products and being given only toilet paper.”

“Another client with a history of heavy periods reported that when she woke up with blood-stained clothes and sheets, she had difficulty convincing officers to let her bathe or even wash her bedding.” the ACLU writes. “…Many are simply denied access to any feminine hygiene products.”

In some states where tampons or certain brand-name menstrual products must be purchased, inmates hardly make enough money to afford these products. In Arizona, a box of 16 Always pads costs $3.20. With the base pay for inmates beginning at 15 cents an hour, female inmates would need to work about 21 hours to afford just one box. A box of tampons cost $3.99, which would require between 26 and 27 hours of work. Removing the financial costs of menstrual products, and making pads and tampons more accessible to inmates, ensures that incarcerated women are treated humanely and that their menstrual needs are treated as a right, rather than a privilege.

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Celisa Calacal is a freelance writer for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College's student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.