by Kevin W. Bliss
Writers Victoria Law and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff penned a Time magazine article on March 29, 2023, collecting accounts from female prisoners about difficulties dealing with menstruation while in prison. They found the current criminal justice system has weaponized menstruation, using it as a means to punish and oppress female prisoners.
Approximately 10% of the U.S. prison population – 170,000 people – is incarcerated in women’s prisons across the country, 90% of them under age 55. Almost all of these women have to cope with a monthly period behind bars, where insensitivity and even harassment from guards add humiliation to this natural body function.
In 2017, U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) submitted a bill requiring the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to supply menstrual care products free of charge in prison. BOP made the change voluntarily shortly thereafter, and it became law with passage of the First Step Act in 2018. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.34.]
But this bill affected only the federal prison system; more than 35 states lack similar menstrual care protections in their laws. A Texas prisoner named Kwaneta said she was allotted just one pack of pads and five regular-sized tampons monthly. Additional pads must be purchased from the prison canteen at $15 per box – as much as triple the price outside prison and a small fortune in Texas, where prison work is unpaid.
Why does she need more? For one thing, she said, guards force women to remove pads and tampons during recurrent strip searches, and each search requires a replacement pad or tampon. One guard opened every one of her sealed tampon packages during a shakedown, she added, contaminating them and forcing her to replace them, as well.
Surprisingly, Kwaneta said that birth control was more readily available than menstrual products in prison. So many women take “the pill” just to keep from bleeding each month.
As Law and Nalebuff note, humiliation surrounding a woman’s period can take many forms in prison. Menstruating women are sometimes given supplies but no way to dispose of them when soiled. Or they are given pads but no panties to wear that will hold them in place. Guards shame prisoners for bloody spots on their prison uniforms.
“No matter what you believe about serving time,” they said, “we need to question why we permit this kind of control and abuse over anyone’s most basic bodily functions and needs.”
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