At some point, we’ve all complained about our period. But have you ever considered how difficult menstruation is for incarcerated women? I really hadn’t thought about that predicament until I watched the Orange is the New Black episode where Litchfield prison runs out of pads and tampons, and the women are forced to get creative.
Apparently the show offers more than a dose of reality. I spoke to Michelle,* a woman who spent 11 years in the New York state prison system, to hear first-hand about this aspect of prison living. Here’s what I learned from her prison experiences:
Whereas prison rations are standardized, periods are not
Regardless of period flow or length, Michelle and her fellow inmates each received a monthly allotment of 20 pads (no tampons!). For Michelle, whose period was heavy and would last about a week (requiring closer to 30 pads), this was never enough to feel comfortable and clean.
Apparently, she’s not alone. According to a 2015 survey, 54% of women in prison feel that they do not have enough sanitary pads per month. And Michelle may have had it better than most. Prisons in some other states are less “generous.” Chandra Bozelko, who spent six years at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut, received just ten pads per month.
Prisoners need to double up on pads
Per Michelle, prison pads are as cheap as they come and are therefore less absorbent than what most women are used to. In order to prevent leaks, Michelle and many others would have to wear two pads (or more) at a time on heavier days, which puts an added strain on an already limited supply.
Unfortunately, most prisons across the country don’t distribute tampons, though they do sometimes sell them at commissary. Speaking of the commissary…
The commissary isn’t an option for most women
In theory, prisoners can buy pads or tampons at the commissary (a store within the correctional facility that sells snacks, health and dental supplies, cosmetics, and other necessities). But few can afford to do so, as the majority of incarcerated people lived in poverty prior to their arrest. Prison jobs — which can be anything from building office furniture to working in a call center to cleaning prison grounds — are not always available, and the pay is dismal (Michelle earned 10-15 cents per hour). Compare that to a box of tampons or pads, which can cost about five dollars (or more) in prison.
Even if you are lucky to have wealthy relatives stocking your prison account, there are other limitations to deal with. In Michelle’s experience, the max amount of spending at the commissary was $55 per visit, and commissary visits took place just once every two weeks. That’s not much considering women need to buy many necessities like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and additional food . It’s hard to splurge on tampons when there are so many other things you need.
And, finally, as you can probably guess: the commissary runs out of menstrual products, too.
Women have to go to great lengths to have enough pads
Since there are never enough supplies, women have to resort to desperate and uncomfortable measures to make it through their periods with decent coverage. When the monthly distribution of pads took place, Michelle would race to her friends to ask for extras, hoping to get there first. Either she’d ask friends who didn’t menstruate, or trade snacks for pads. Somehow, she managed to scrape by with this strategy. Another tactic is using bunches of toilet paper, but this was a tough choice. Like pads, prisoners receive a limited supply of toilet paper each month, and that, too, is inadequate for most women.
There are two other options for getting more period supplies, both of which are equally humiliating. One is “going to medical,” a long and drawn-out process requiring paperwork, seeing a nurse, and then, finally, seeing a doctor… just to ask for more pads. Some prisons impose additional measures before providing extra products, like insisting that women show a bag filled with their used pads as proof they need more.
The other is asking a guard for a tampon, a process which many women, including Michelle and Chandra Bozelko, describe as utterly humiliating and shame-inducing. In Michelle’s experience, prison guards would use the opportunity to make lewd comments or flirt with her. After doing it once, Michelle never tried again.
Getting your period in prison isn’t sanitary
From all the accounts I’ve heard, women simply end up wearing their pads for many hours or even days. Chandra reports that she would see “pads fly right out of an inmate’s pants” because the adhesive strip would lose its stickiness after multiple days of wear.
Women who are forced to stay in the SHU (“Segregated Housing Unit”), code word for solitary confinement, have another level of grossness to contend with. As explained to me by Michelle, who was sent to SHU for three months, prisoners in solitary confinement are not allowed to have any belongings, so they must ask the prison guards for a pad… every single time. To make matters worse, prison pads are not wrapped individually, so the guard uses his or her hands to remove the pad from the package and hand it over to the menstruating woman — who has no choice but to use it.
So, where do we go from here?
Thanks to advocacy work done on this issue, in June, the New York City Council passed a package of menstrual equity bills that will guarantee citywide access to menstrual products in prisons and jails, among other places. The new law will only apply to correctional facilities in New York City, though, so there’s more work to be done.
This blog post was written in conjunction with the Women’s Prison Association.
* Name was changed