by Derek Gilna
Within 30 days after the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act (S.1524) was introduced by U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and three of her colleagues – a bill that seeks to compel the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to provide free feminine hygiene products to female prisoners – the BOP, without fanfare, issued an operations memo in August 2017 that accomplished the same thing.
Previously, under a 1996 BOP policy, “products for female hygiene needs” only had to be made “available.” Female prisoners were required to spend their own funds to obtain tampons, maxi-pads and panty liners, which was difficult for prisoners employed in low-wage jobs and “a humiliating and degrading experience,” according to Brennan Center for Justice vice-president Jennifer Weiss-Wolf. She called it “kind of astonishing” that feminine hygiene products weren’t previously thought of as a necessity.
“It feels like you’re degraded for having a period,” said Holli Coulman, who was released from a BOP facility in Victorville, California shortly before the policy change.
Even after the change, questions arose about how well it was being implemented. The prison-issued maxi-pads were so thin that many women reported having to wear several at a time to prevent soiling one of their three pairs of prison-issued pants, which could be washed only every four days. But stocking up on prison supplies is frowned upon by guards, and in some cases can result in a disciplinary ticket – which can then threaten a prisoner’s commissary, phone or even visitation privileges.
Two advocacy groups founded and run by former female prisoners, Families for Justice as Healing and the CAN-DO Foundation, surveyed BOP prisoners after the policy change was supposed to take effect. They found that in some federal prisons, not all of the free hygiene products were actually provided.
At the BOP prison in Waseca, Minnesota, free tampons didn’t arrive until October 2017 – several months after the new policy was implemented.
And at the BOP’s facility in Alderson, West Virginia, prisoners said tampons still cost $5 for a box of 20. For a prisoner earning $5.25 a month, that could mean choosing between purchasing feminine hygiene products or a phone call home.
“Women do not choose to have a period,” observed Amy Povah, who founded CAN-DO after serving a nine-year federal prison sentence. The feminine hygiene products the BOP is now supposed to provide are “not a luxury,” she added.
Indeed, as one nurse noted, the common practice of using rolled-up sanitary pads as a make-shift tampon can lead to toxic shock syndrome – which can be fatal.
The BOP has been under criticism for almost a decade from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, as well as members of Congress, for its inefficiency in carrying out not only congressional directives but also its own policies. The agency refused to comment on its new guidelines for feminine hygiene products or how they came to be adopted so quickly.
Senator Harris, co-sponsor of the bill that was mostly rendered moot by the BOP’s policy change, praised it as “an imperative step toward ensuring we live in a civil society that recognizes the unique challenges incarcerated women face.”
Noting the many female prisoners held in state prisons and local jails that “don’t support basic hygiene or reproductive health,” she added: “That’s just not right.”
The BOP’s policy change did not affect other parts of S.1524 which seek to prevent the shackling of pregnant prisoners, provide more liberal visitation policies for female prisoners and implement parenting classes. U.S. Senators Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Richard Durbin co-sponsored the legislation with Harris, while Senator Tammy Duckworth joined as a co-sponsor in December 2017.
The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, had submitted a letter to Senator Booker on March 29, 2017 in support of introducing the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act.
The policy change immediately improved conditions for female prisoners in the federal corrections system. However, “most of the need is at state prisons and county jails,” Weiss-Wolf said, adding she hoped the new BOP policy “sets the tone for the rest of the country.”
In fact, it may have done just that.
In February 2018, a Maryland Senate committee began considering a bill to guarantee free tampons and sanitary pads to women in the state’s prison system and local jails. According to Reproductive Justice Inside – a coalition of more than a dozen advocacy groups that collects sanitary pads to donate to women’s prisons – the state’s previous policy merely required access to hygiene products, which did not have to be free. SB 598, which remains pending, has the support of 35 state senators from both parties.
Also, on January 17, 2018, a bill to ensure that free feminine hygiene products are made available in Arizona state prisons was introduced by state Rep. Athena Salman. The proposed law (H.B. 2222) would overhaul the current system in which each female prisoner receives 12 free pads – but no tampons – each month.
“Bloodstained pants, bartering, and begging for pads and tampons was a regular occurrence,” testified former prisoner Adrienne Kitcheyan, who also told the committee members that bloodstained pants could earn her a disciplinary ticket for violating the prison system’s dress code.
“The humiliation is really something you carry with you forever,” agreed another former prisoner, Sue Ellen Allen.
The bill was considered at a contentious all-male committee hearing on February 5, where it narrowly passed. However, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. T.J. Shope, indicated he would not hear it, meaning it would not progress to a floor vote. In protest, activists encouraged women to send tampons and pads to Shope’s legislative office.
But on February 21, 2018, the Arizona DOC announced that it would alter its policy and provide free tampons to prisoners, shortly after announcing it would increase the number of free maxi-pads that prisoners could receive from 12 to 36 per month.
“This is another good step in the right direction for incarcerated women,” said Rep. Salman. “I hope in the future, we will see another step to codify this in law.”
Other states that are considering bills related to the provision of feminine hygiene products to prisoners include Virginia and Nebraska, while Colorado passed a similar law in 2017. A total of 15 states provide free tampons in their prison systems.
In March 2018, Bay Area attorney Paula Canny filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of female prisoners at a jail run by the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Office, claiming county officials were in violation of California’s Title 15 Minimum Standards for Local Detention Facilities by charging for tampons.
However, County Counsel Rita Neal insisted the facility was already in compliance with Title 15 by providing free sanitary pads; she said tampons were not required. The California Board of State and Community Corrections, which is responsible for enforcing Title 15, said it lacked the power to intervene because compliance with the standards is voluntary.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 98,725 female prisoners were held in state correctional facilities as of the end of 2016, while 12,697 were in federal prisons. The population of female prisoners increased over 800% between 1977 and 2007, compared to a 400% increase for men.
Sources: www.mercurynews.com, www.rewire.news, www.fredericknewspost.com, www.motherjones.com, www.bjs.gov, www.azcentral.com
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