Menstruation Can Become Humiliation in Prisons

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Photo: Juliya Shumskaya/Getty Images

If you think getting your period is a pain, imagine getting it in prison. “The lack of sanitary supplies is so bad in women’s prisons that I have seen pads fly right out of an inmate’s pants,” Chandra Bozelko writes in The Guardian of the wingless, small, and not-so-adhesive pads female inmates are given. Bozelko spent six years at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, where bunkmates received five pads per week to split. (They’re also used off-label as makeshift shower shoes to avoid fungus and mold, as eye masks in facilities with constant bright lights, and as cleaning supplies.) But even when inmates save them, with only ten per month, they can expect to wear a single pad for multiple days.

Bozelko avoided the problem by fashioning a diaper with six pads quilted together after purchasing extras from the commissary. But most inmates can’t afford to buy pads ($2.63 for a 24-pack) when they’re spending the 75 cents they earn for a day’s work on other necessities like deodorant (which costs $1.93, three days' pay), toothpaste ($1.50, two days' pay), or food that’s more edible than what’s offered in the dining hall. At some prisons, prices are higher, with eight tampons costing $4.23 thanks to a privatized commissary. But even when inmates have the money to buy feminine hygiene supplies, commissaries routinely understock and women are left waiting for a week or two, rendering the pads irrelevant for another month. Toilet paper is also rationed, so crafting homemade toilet-paper pads means forgoing wiping.

A number of prisons don’t provide any free female hygiene products. “The women have to buy their personal hygiene,” Patricia Williams in the Victorville, California, federal prison told Ms. magazine. “If you don’t have any funds… Oh wellllllllll.” Last year, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit on behalf of eight female inmates alleging “inhuman and degrading policies at the filthy, overcrowded lockup violate their constitutional rights.” One among many problems listed was the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products, forcing inmates to routinely bleed through their clothes and not providing them a change of clothes until laundry day. When one inmate requested supplies, an officer told her she was “shit out of luck” and “better not bleed on the floor.”

While using tampons or pads for excessive lengths of time routinely causes bacterial and fungal infections, prison policies also lead to tension amongst inmates, according to Ms. magazine. And, since living together frequently leads to synched periods, this can create a particularly short supply.

“To ask a macho guard for a tampon is humiliating,” Bozelko wrote. “But it’s more than that: it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that, ultimately, the prison controls your cleanliness, your health and your feelings of self-esteem.” One inmate in Washington wrote a letter from jail (later published by the Committee Against Political Repression) in which she discussed how bad it made her feel to go without pads or tampons. “It is an experience that either intentionally works to degrade inmates, or degrades us as a result of cost-saving measures; either way, the results are the same. Prison makes us hate a part of our selves; it turns us against our own bodies.”