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Menstruation and Incarceration in U.S. State and Federal Women’s Prisons



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A sink and two toilets within a prison cell

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“If there was better period supplies, we would probably feel safer within the prison system, you know? Safer, cause, like, when you don’t bleed all over yourself in the middle of the night, when you have the confidence of going to sleep and not waking up covered in blood, I mean, it’s a good feeling. It’s a good feeling knowing that you’re secure. It’s just one less stressful thing to not put in an already stressful situation in prison, you know?”

– Ann (not her real name), a previously incarcerated woman in a Washington state women’s facility. 

 

My doctoral research focuses on access to menstrual products for those incarcerated in state and federal women’s prisons in the U.S. While there is growing awareness of this issue as well as an increasing amount of literature on women in prison and the issues they face, my research is the first and only time someone has put this problem in a national context in an academic study. 

Four research questions drive this work:

  1. How do prisons handle the issue of menstruating during incarceration?
  2. What is the effect of menstruation on incarceration?
  3. Does the issue of access to menstrual products fit into existing theories of rehabilitation?
  4. Why does this issue exist?

I was drawn to this issue when I started to see more and more articles about how women were not given enough access to menstrual products to meet their needs while they were incarcerated, and how women were being made to suffer in an additional way just because they menstruated. You can now find articles from almost any state discussing how hard it is for those who menstruate in prison. 

During my research, I collected and compiled all current federal and state documentation on menstrual product access in prison. All of the documentation I collected and analysed is available on my research site, the Prison Flow Project, and is the only compendium of rules around access to menstrual products in prison for the entire U.S. This documentation breaks down into three categories for every jurisdiction: laws, policies, and specific mentions of the provision of menstrual products in facility handbooks. These handbooks are given to new inmates to familiarize them with the procedures and rules of the institution where they have been sent. The policies are usually rules created by the jurisdiction Department of Corrections for its own agencies, and they carry the force of law without having gone through a jurisdiction’s legislature. Some states made it easy to find all the information I was looking for, while others refused to send me anything without an official information request. Below is a geographic representation of which jurisdictions ensure prison access to menstrual products for these three categories. 

 

"A black and white map of America showing states"

 

I also conducted interviews both with women who have previously been incarcerated and with people who work closely with prisons and/or inmates professionally or through advocacy work. Because formerly incarcerated women are one of the hardest groups to reach, I decided to interview those who work closely with these women professionally or through advocacy. I knew they would be easier to reach, they would also know about this issue, and they could provide different perspectives. I found people to interview by calling advocacy organizations that have worked on this problem, reaching out to my personal networks, and reaching out to women who have spoken on this publicly, including through social media. I conducted nine interviews with formerly incarcerated women from both state and federal facilities and six with professionals spread all over the U.S. and in many fields.

Here is a brief description of the current situation in the U.S. in terms of access to menstrual products for inmates of state and federal women’s prisons based on my interviews. 

When women don’t have access to the menstrual products they need, they have to get ‘crafty’. Women have talked to me about using the same pad or tampon for a week because it was all they had. Women have cut open dirty prison mattresses to use the stuffing as tampons. The pads prisons carry are so bad, women have talked about rolling them up and using them as tampons. One woman with bleeding problems told me she had to stuff a shirt down her pants to catch her flow. In the majority of prisons in the U.S., tampons are completely forbidden (due to unexplained ‘security concerns’ according to prison officials) even though they are absolutely necessary products for some menstruators. Where they are allowed, they are available for purchase in the commissary (prison store) at a high price. Since so many people in prison are indigent, most women can’t afford the extra products. If they are lucky, an inmate might find a prison job, but not every state pays inmates for their work and some people make only $0.10 an hour. That’s 40 hours of work for a $4.00 box of tampons. The highest paying jobs are industry jobs but women’s facilities tend to have less access to the same programs provided to men. Even if there are well-paying jobs (roughly $1.00 per hour is considered quite good), there are not enough for everyone. When women can’t afford these items they are made even more vulnerable to coercion by prison staffers, who have withheld menstrual items-specifically tampons-in exchange for sexual favours from inmates in Alabama and other jurisdictions. There are even common prison rules throughout the U.S. which are particularly bad for menstruators: damaging prison property is widely considered a crime, so bleeding on your prison clothing can result in being disciplined. The medical impacts can be severe and one Maryland women had to have a hysterectomy due to the lack of access to menstrual products. 

My fieldwork is complete and I will spend the next year analysing my data and writing my dissertation. The current state of incarcerated menstruators is extremely bleak, and I plan on using my work to draw attention to this serious and neglected issue. I hope my work can be a springboard for others who are interested in documenting and tackling this issue, as well as to-date unresearched adjoining topics: for example, access to menstrual products for transgender individuals incarcerated in men’s facilities in the U.S.

 

Miriam Vishniac (she/her/hers) is a third-year doctoral student in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh from Washington, D.C., U.S.A. She received her B.A. in Biochemistry from Oberlin College in 2010 and her Master of Public Policy with a concentration in Civil Rights from George Washington University in 2018, and uses her multidisciplinary background to find new approaches and perspectives on problems involving gender inequality, racial injustice, and menstrual activism.

 

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