Menstrual Hygiene Equity in U.S. Women’s Prisons and Jails

Menstrual equity, or the understanding that to have an equitable society everyone who menstruates should have access to quality hygiene products that are safe and affordable, has been seriously overlooked. In the US, approximately two-thirds of low-income women struggle to afford menstrual products.[1] This issue could be partially addressed through the removal of the sales tax on menstrual products and their inclusion in the list of allowable products under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).[2] Still, a significant population is being left out of the conversation: incarcerated women.

On August 1, 2016, the Federal Bureau of Prisons sent out a memo with a mandate to provide free menstrual products in all federal prisons,[3] but a 2017 report indicated that barriers to access still remained, including an “irregular allocation of products, restrictions on the availability of product type [or] size, or having to pay for products”.[4] The mandate was also limited. It currently only addresses the needs of 16,000 of the 219,000 incarcerated women in the United States,[5] and only twelve states have legislation that provides menstrual products free of charge to women in both state prisons and jails.[6] Incarcerated women in these environments often (1) are deprived of/or only have access to poor quality products, (2) have to ask guards for more, and/or (3) have to pay for the products themselves.

Poor Quality Products: In Semelbauer v. Muskegon County (2015), the deprivation of menstrual products was deemed de minimis,[7] meaning “lacking significance or importance”[8] or “so minor as to merit disregard”.[9] While this is a state-specific case, it demonstrates that menstrual products are often perceived as a luxury item, or something that can be forgone without significant impact to quality of life. Provided products are also often of poor quality; there are many testimonials of women creating tampons out of maxi-pads,[10] for example. Approximately 30 percent of the time, this improper use will lead to vaginal infections, in turn increasing the risk of toxic shock syndrome, sepsis, and even death.[11]

Bargaining and Asking for Products: Incarcerated women without ready access to menstrual products must bargain or beg for basic hygiene products, resulting in a power imbalance,[12] especially considering that approximately 4 in 10 guards are male.[13]There have even been times where women were raped so they could get access to the products they needed.[14] 

Paying for Menstrual Hygiene Products: Paying for products is also increasingly difficult considering it can take up to two weeks’ wages to buy a box of tampons[15] when earning less than a dollar per hour.[16] Women cannot spend their wages to buy hygiene products they need monthly when they must choose between these products and calling home.[17] The inaccessibility of hygiene products becomes even more visible when considering that Tampax tampons generally sell for around 19 cents each outside of prisons, while in one California jail, those same tampons cost 56 cents each.[18]

Fortunately, a 2020 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that incarcerated women have unique biological healthcare needs different from incarcerated men, and that they have a constitutional right to have those needs met. In that same report, the commission also concludes that restricting access to feminine products leaves women vulnerable to infection and other health consequences and recommends that prisons provide adequate feminine hygiene products free of charge.[19] [20]

While practically addressing the menstrual hygiene needs of incarcerated women should be prioritized, other research must be conducted to understand the circumstances of hygiene and menstruation in women’s prisons. For example, the number of incarcerated women that have contracted vaginal infections while in prison due to poor menstrual hygiene practices needs to be tracked. Smaller surveys have indicated that up to 80 percent of incarcerated women could be using makeshift tampons and of that 80 percent, 30 percent or more could contract vaginal infections.[21] Also, the number of menstrual product shortages, and the consequences they create, including the need for women to bargain for products, need to be tracked since that seems to be a recurring theme in many previously incarcerated women’s stories.

Image: Two women demonstrate the makeshift tampons they would make while incarcerated at the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, Virginia.

A possible course of action to resolve a majority of the issues discussed would be for Congress to pass the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which has been introduced multiple times but has never proceeded further.[22] This act would include new regulations for menstrual products but would also address quality of life issues for incarcerated women, including shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women, free phone calls, video messaging, and more contact with families (including allowing them to breastfeed young children).[23] Menstrual equity for all women, but especially incarcerated women, needs to be more prioritized within the legislative agenda, yet is often an issue that legislators either don’t know about or don’t care to discuss (as the topic of menstruation is often a taboo and has been dismissed in many state legislatures as a such). I hope that, going forward, this issue will be readdressed to further the dignity of menstruating people everywhere.

-E.R.D.


[1] “The State of Period Poverty in the U.S.” Upenn.edu. https://www.nursing.upenn.edu/live/news/1545-the-state-of-period-poverty-in-the-us (January 28, 2021).

[2] “Even in the U.S., Poor Women Often Can’t Afford Tampons, Pads.” 2019. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-menstruation-usa-idUSKCN1P42TX (January 28, 2021).

[3] Mazzo, Lauren. 2017. “Female Inmates Finally Have Access to Free Pads and Tampons in Federal Prisons.” Shape.com. https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/female-inmates-finally-get-free-pads-and-tampons-federal-prisons (January 28, 2021).

[4] Polka, Erin. 2018. “The Monthly Shaming of Women in State Prisons.” Publichealthpost.org. https://www.publichealthpost.org/news/sanitary-products-women-state-prisons/ (January 28, 2021).

[5] Prison Policy Initiative, and Aleks Kajstura. “Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2018.” Prisonpolicy.org. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2018women.html (January 28, 2021).

[6] “ACLU News & Commentary.” Aclu.org. https://www.aclu.org/news/prisoners-rights/why-im-fighting-for-menstrual-equity-in-prison/ (January 28, 2021).

[7] Semelbauer, Michelle. “United States District Court Western District of Michigan Southern Division.” Clearinghouse.net. https://www.clearinghouse.net/chDocs/public/JC-MI-0010-0003.pdf (January 28, 2021).

[8] Definition of DE MINIMIS.” Merriam-webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/de%20minimis (January 28, 2021).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kitcheyan, Adrienne, and Tuesday Brauer. 2018. “Let Women in Prison Have Their Periods in Peace.” HuffPost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-kitcheyan-brauer-tampons-prison_n_5a8f0b97e4b00804dfe69b71 (January 28, 2021).

[11] Warner, Abby. 2020. “Why Getting Your Period in a U.S. Prison Is Hell.” Thegirlsco.com. https://thegirlsco.com/blogs/news/why-getting-your-period-in-a-u-s-prison-is-hell (January 28, 2021).

[12] American Civil Liberties Union. “The Unequal Price of Periods: Menstrual Equity in the United States” Aclu.org. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/111219-sj-periodequity.pdf (January 28, 2021).

[13] Polka, Erin. 2018. “The Monthly Shaming of Women in State Prisons.” Publichealthpost.org. https://www.publichealthpost.org/news/sanitary-products-women-state-prisons/ (January 28, 2021).

[14] American Civil Liberties Union. “The Unequal Price of Periods: Menstrual Equity in the United States” Aclu.org. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/111219-sj-periodequity.pdf (January 28, 2021).

[15] Prison Policy Initiative. “How Much Do Incarcerated People Earn in Each State?” Prisonpolicy.org. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2017/04/10/wages/ (January 28, 2021).

[16] Polka, Erin. 2018. “The Monthly Shaming of Women in State Prisons.” Publichealthpost.org. https://www.publichealthpost.org/news/sanitary-products-women-state-prisons/ (January 28, 2021).

[17] Ovee. 2019. “The Price of Periods in Prisons.” Ovee.me. https://www.ovee.me/post/the-price-of-periods-in-prisons (January 28, 2021).

[18] Michaels, Samantha. “Jail Is a Terrible Place to Have a Period. One Woman Is on a Crusade to Make It Better.” Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/crime-justice/2019/02/jail-california-tampons-menstruation-paula-canny-sanitary-pads/ (January 28, 2021).

[19] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Women In Prison: Seeking Justice Behind Bars” Usccr.gov. https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2020/02-26-Women-in-Prison.pdf (January 28, 2021).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Warner, Abby. 2020. “Why Getting Your Period in a U.S. Prison Is Hell.” Thegirlsco.com. https://thegirlsco.com/blogs/news/why-getting-your-period-in-a-u-s-prison-is-hell (January 28, 2021).

[22] Booker, Cory A. 2017. Dignity Act.

[23] Mazzo, Lauren. 2017. “Female Inmates Finally Have Access to Free Pads and Tampons in Federal Prisons.” Shape.com. https://www.shape.com/lifestyle/mind-and-body/female-inmates-finally-get-free-pads-and-tampons-federal-prisons (January 28, 2021).

Additional References:

Brand, David. “When Periods Are Political: 5 Laws That Stigmatize Menstruation.” Globalcitizen.org. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/period-stigma-5-laws-us-taboos/ (January 28, 2021).

Bringing Resources To Aid Women’s Shelters. “Periods, Poverty, and the Need for Policy: A Report on Menstrual Inequity in the United States” https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.law.udc.edu/resource/resmgr/LegClinic/2018_periods_policy_report.pdf (January 28, 2021).

Carney, Mitchell O’shea. “Cycles of Punishment: The Constitutionality of Restricting Access Cycles of Punishment: The Constitutionality of Restricting Access to Menstrual Health Products in Prisons.” Lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu. https://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3912&context=bclr (January 28, 2021).

Laufer, Samantha. “Reproductive Healthcare for Incarcerated Women: From ‘Rights’ to ‘Dignity.’” Georgetown.edu. https://www.law.georgetown.edu/american-criminal-law-review/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2019/06/56-4-Reproductive-Healthcare-for-incarcerated-women-from-rights-to-dignity.pdf (January 28, 2021).

“States of Women’s Incarceration: The Global Context 2018.” Prisonpolicy.org. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/women/2018.html (January 28, 2021b).

Zraick, Karen. 2018. “It’s Not Just the Tampon Tax: Why Periods Are Political.” The New York times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/22/health/tampon-tax-periods-menstruation-nyt.html (January 28, 2021).

Image Sources:

Makeshift Tampons: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-kitcheyan-brauer-tampons-prison_n_5a8f0b97e4b00804dfe69b71

Incarcerated Women Pie Chart: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html

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