Menstruation A Reproductive Rights Issue – Ask A Woman in Prison

Holy Hormones Journal: What is it about shaming women? Every step we take the patriarchy is quick to remind and remand us over our menstrual blood. Incarcerating women and then withholding femcare products is a human rights violations. Forcing women to wear stained clothes instead of providing them sanitary products is cruel and unusual but accepted punishment.

This is not our reality – and even if we lived in our reality – I can tell you there would be more justice and tolerance and respect for men than the patriarchy deems women.

Prisons that withhold menstrual pads humiliate women and violate basic rights

 Many female inmates in US prisons do not receive adequate access to sanitary napkins. Photograph: JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

Many female inmates in US prisons do not receive adequate access to sanitary napkins. Photograph: JIM LO SCALZO/EPA


June 12 ,2015

Stains on clothes seep into self-esteem and reinforce powerlessness. That’s why wardens keep sanitation just out of reach.

Everyone laughed when Piper Chapman emerged from the shower during the first season of Orange Is the New Black with bootleg shoes made of maxi pads – and inmates do sometimes waste precious resources like sanitary products with off-label uses. At York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, where I spent more than six years, I used the tampons as scouring pads – certainly not as sponges, because prison tampons are essentially waterproof– when I needed to clean a stubborn mess in my cell.

That should not lead anyone to think that sanitary products are easy to come by in jail. At York, each cell, which houses two female inmates, receives five pads per week to split. I’m not sure what they expect us to do with the fifth but this comes out to 10 total for each woman, allowing for only one change a day in an average five-day monthly cycle. The lack of sanitary supplies is so bad in women’s prisons that I have seen pads fly right out of an inmate’s pants: prison maxi pads don’t have wings and they have only average adhesive so, when a woman wears the same pad for several days because she can’t find a fresh one, that pad often fails to stick to her underwear and the pad falls out. It’s disgusting but it’s true.

The only reason I dodged having a maxi pad slither off my leg is that I layered and quilted together about six at a time so I could wear a homemade diaper that was too big to slide down my pants. I had enough supplies to do so because I bought my pads from the commissary. However, approximately 80% of inmates are indigent and cannot afford to pay the $2.63 the maxi pads cost per package of 24, as most earn 75 cents a day and need to buy other necessities like toothpaste ($1.50, or two days’ pay) and deodorant ($1.93, almost three days’ pay). Sometimes I couldn’t get the pads because the commissary ran out: they kept them in short supply as it appeared I was the only one buying them.

Connecticut is not alone in being cheap with its supplies for women. Inmates in Michigan filed suit last December alleging that pads and tampons are so scarce that their civil rights have been violated. One woman bled through her uniform and was required to dress herself in her soiled jumpsuit after stripping for a search.

The reasons for keeping supplies for women in prison limited are not purely financial. Even though keeping inmates clean would seem to be in the prison’s self-interest, prisons control their wards by keeping sanitation just out of reach. Stains on clothes seep into self-esteem and serve as an indelible reminder of one’s powerlessness in prison. Asking for something you need crystallizes the power differential between inmates and guards; the officer can either meet your need or he can refuse you, and there’s little you can do to influence his choice.

 

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.