Gender, Social Justice

Why do prisons punish women for their periods?

As if life behind bars wasn't bad enough.

Periods are no fun for any woman.

The cramps, bloating, PMS, headaches and copious amounts of pain associated with menstruating may be hindrances to performing everyday activities. Proper hygiene is essential and is usually provided by an array of overpriced pads and tampons. However, female prisoners, in particular, are faced with horrible, unhygienic conditions and are limited access to feminine products.

They are forced to find ways to keep clean while menstruating behind bars.

Chandra Bolzelko, author and blogger of Prison Diaries, explains that women would receive about 10 pads in a week, barely enough to cover women with a heavy flow or longer cycles. Many women would wear one pad a day and Bolzelko witnessed pads flying out of inmates’ pants because they didn’t have wings and were too heavy with blood to adhere to their underwear.

Inmates would practically be sitting in their own blood because they were not given resources and lacked the money to purchase expensive feminine products. She states that maxi pads were $2.63 per 24 pack. Most women earn 75 cents a day and use their wages for other necessities like toothpaste ($1.50)=2 days pay and deodorant ($1.93)=3 days pay.

Money is scarce for women with low paying prison jobs and it makes it difficult to purchase extra personal hygiene products.

Periods are a natural part of life and should not be tabooed. Unrestricted access to hygienic products during menstruation is a basic civil right and there is no reason for women to be denied any access regarding their health.

This lack of sanitary treatment in women’s prisons occurs across the U.S. and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight female inmates from the Muskegon County Jail alleging that their civil rights were being violated due to the scarcity of pads and tampons in jail.

Many women bleed through their uniforms and have no other clean clothes to change into.

Bolzelko writes: “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.”

Other women stop menstruating altogether due to extreme stress and poor nutrition. For some, this may come as a relief, because they do not have to deal with the vile conditions and sanitary risks while menstruating.

It is extremely disheartening to know that incarcerated women are made to hate their bodies because of lack of resources and dehumanization by prison guards and workers. What many of us consider a basic necessity is a precious commodity to others.

As Bolzelko said, “Using periods to punish women simply has no place in any American prison.”

An alternative to the regular pads and tampons is for prisons to supply period underwear, self-absorbing underwear that is washable after each use. AFRIpads is an organization that supplies period underwear to women in developing nations and has teamed up with THINX to create cute, comfortable and most importantly, useful underwear for even your heaviest days.

Innovations like this need to be implemented in U.S. prisons so that incarcerated women can feel clean just like the rest of us.

Periods are not shameful and menstruation is an experience that should not be made dreadful for any women.