Our guest blogger Mika Doyle digs into the period poverty incarcerated menstruators face every month - and how impossible dignity can seem in that situation.
Imagine having to bargain for menstrual products every month, sometimes having to do things you never thought you’d do to get them. When that doesn’t work, you’re forced to bleed straight through your clothes and sit in your own menstrual blood for hours on end. And the people who are supposed to protect and help you mock you and call you disgusting for a natural bodily function almost everyone with a uterus has. That’s the reality many incarcerated menstruators face across the globe.
In the United States, federal prisons are supposed to provide menstrual products for free, and that includes regular- and super-sized tampons, regular- and super-sized pads with wings, and regular-sized pantiliners. But Senator Cory Booker, who’s been working with Senator Elizabeth Warren to create greater access to the products menstruating prisoners need, told Refinery29 that policies like this are “just words on a piece of paper unless it’s properly enforced.”
That’s why it’s so easy for menstrual products to be used as bargaining chips to gain power and control over inmates, Women’s Health reports. “There’s a constant negotiation with [corrections officers] to get menstrual health supplies,” Chandra Bozelko, a prison reform advocate and writer who blogs about her time as a prisoner at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, told Women’s Health. “You’d ask a CO for pads or tampons, and he would ask you questions like, ‘How long have you been bleeding? Didn’t I give you a pad yesterday? How long is this one going to last?’”
So even though federal law states prisoners have a right to free menstrual products to ensure they have clean conditions during their incarceration, those menstrual products are still being withheld from them by people who are willfully violating their human rights. And on the state level, access to menstrual products is even worse, with many states putting a cap on the number of menstrual products inmates can receive each month. That’s why Arizona state representative Athena Salman introduced a bill in January 2018 that would provide unlimited menstrual products to prisoners, according to Global Citizen.
Formerly incarcerated people in Arizona testified before a committee of nine men (yes, men) about the 12-pad per month limit, according to Global Citizen. This restriction forces inmates to ration menstrual products, free-bleed, or face unsanitary conditions. If inmates want more than 12 pads, they have to ask a corrections officer — who are often men — or pay for them using their commissary accounts, Global Citizen reports. But, says Global Citizen, paying for extra menstrual products is often impossible for most prisoners, who earn only about 15 cents an hour through prison-provided jobs.
"Bloodstained pants, bartering and begging for pads was a regular occurrence," one woman told the Arizona state House of Representatives committee, says Global Citizen. "You’ve got to really think if you want to sink your whole month’s income into pads.”
In the UK, the Home Office proposed in August new guidelines for police treatment of menstruating detainees to ensure they are treated with dignity, The Independent reports. The new guidelines came after watchdog organization the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA), which monitors the mistreatment of detainees, revealed alleged mistreatment of menstruating people while in police custody, says The Independent. According to BBC News, the ICVA is funded by the Home Office, and it found that menstruating people in Wales and England are often held in police cells without access to menstrual products or facilities for changing or washing. One woman, says BBC News, allegedly had her clothes removed and was dressed in a paper suit without any menstrual protection. "She was left in a state of vulnerability sufficient to cause concern for her wellbeing, bleeding in a paper suit, alone in a cell," the ICVA told BBC News.
Under the proposed new guidelines, police will be required to ask female detainees (there was no mention of transgender or gender nonbinary detainees) if they need menstrual products while in police custody, says The Independent, and police need to make it clear those items are available for free.
It’s worth noting that no one in police custody or who is incarcerated deserves to face unsanitary conditions. Bustle reports that many people who are incarcerated are survivors of violence and poverty. In fact, 72 percent of incarcerated women lived below the poverty line before entering prison, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And none of these policies on menstrual product access even remotely mention transgender or gender nonbinary prisoners. Incarcerated people are human beings who should not have their basic human rights withheld.
Menstruation is a natural bodily function that should not be penalized or shamed, and menstruators should have access to the products they need — no matter where they are or who they are.