Incarcerated People Deserve the Dignity of Menstrual Equity

I’m an activist and advocate, but sometimes people simply call me a “tampon queen.” I got this moniker because, while I was incarcerated, I learned how to make my own tampons out of the subpar menstrual products I was “given” while incarcerated. I am now the Coalition Coordinator for Reproductive Justice Inside and lead directly impacted advocates on this issue.

(Becker1999 / Creative Commons)

Incarcerated women are typically provided with a very limited number of subpar products you would never buy outside of the carceral system, and menstrual products are no exception. Access to pads and tampons is closely restricted, and theysometimes run out, leaving women without any solutions except to beg for more from the guards. Acceptable to standard pads and tampons are available in the commissary, but you have to pay for them, which is often out of reach for many incarcerated women.

Along with many of the women I was incarcerated with, I used my own homemade products rather than beg for more from an unconcerned correctional officer or risk bleeding through my clothes. As a result of my creativity to survive with some modicum of dignity, I ended up needing a hysterectomy when I got home.

My experience is not unique. I offer it as a reason why the new ACLU x Period Equity Menstrual Equity issue brief—designed with input from me and other women who have been impacted by the system—is critical to ensuring menstrual equity for all.

Out of sight should not mean out of mind – and heart. But the tragedy for women in prison is that it often does.

We at Ms. want women in prison to know they are seen and valued. That’s why we started the Ms. magazine Prison and Domestic Violence Shelter Program. Because domestic violence shelters can be almost as isolating as prisons – and often lack libraries or any reading material, just as many prisons do – we include women in those shelters too.

We hope to keep growing this meaningful program—but we need your help. Together, let’s show women in prisons and domestic violence shelters that they have not been forgotten. 

Despite being the fastest growing incarcerated population, women and girls are correctional afterthoughts. We as a society treat them no differently than men. I use my experience to make sure that the people we incarcerate in women’s facilities are also provided equity and, more importantly, dignity.

Pads and tampons have become weaponized in the carceral system. They are withheld in order to get certain behavior, and they are doled out in whatever amounts and at the convenience of correctional staff, when they are distributed at all. There is no dignity, no humanity, no compassion in a system that makes a person have to beg, borrow or even make her own basic hygiene items.

I know women who made products out of shreds of clothes or stuffing from inside their state-issued mattresses. The health risks that people take to provide for themselves the most basic of products are incalculable. Toxic shock, infection, infertility—it is a game of Russian roulette and not a price that anyone should have to pay.

I have seen women call their families and tell them not to come. I have seen women turn down visits from their attorneys when they are menstruating. You are not allowed to have personal property when going on the visits, and if you go, you are stripped naked and made to spread your butt cheeks, squat and cough. Imagine stripping and there is a bloody pad—afterwards no woman is going to want to put that back against her body. Once your visit is over, you have to walk back to your housing unit or job or school assignment and risk bleeding through your clothes. The humiliation of either situation is the very reality that plays out in our prisons and jails.

Incarcerated people deserve no less than dignity when it comes to managing a normal bodily function—yet 38 states have no law requiring the provision of menstrual products to incarcerated people.  States and local jurisdictions must be required to provide essentials to those in their “care, custody and control.” Free and accessible access to menstrual products is simply something that must be provided.  

We passed Menstrual Equity legislation in Maryland in 2018, but one year later, we still have problems. People are still not getting what they need: they still receive subpar products that they are forced to make into usable ones. Worse, when good legislation is passed, resentful leadership too often weaponizes it, replacing the quality products in the commissary with the subpar ones being given freely to incarcerated people.

We need to start thinking about what happens to people incarcerated in women’s facilities and demand action and accountability. It is unfathomable to me that we even have to have this conversation, and that we must use legislation to ensure that those we incarcerate have what they need, in the quantity they need, and that no one has to make their own tampons.

I am no longer going to accept being a “tampon queen.” Now, I am the “tampon bitch”—fighting for menstrual equity and dignity for all.

Crossposted from ACLU with permission.


Kimberly Haven has spent her career working hard to amplify the voices of those left out of the conversation as she believes their voices can be the most relevant and powerful. She is the co-founder of Heels and Hustle, a Maryland-based consulting and training organization which provides a broad array of trainings and motivational seminars, and the Coalition Coordinator for Reproductive Justice Inside with Pro-Choice Maryland.