Imagine you're a young woman who, due to stress or a hormonal blip, or even just your personal biology, you have a longer-than-average menstruation cycle. Sounds annoying, right? Now think about what'd it be like to deal with that while in prison. Even if it's just for something minimal, like petty theft, disorderly conduct, or marijuana possession, you're allotted a dozen pads for the month — no matter what.
This is the reality for female prisoners all over America. But one state just made a move to change that.
Maryland has taken a landmark step towards making hygiene products more accessible for prison inmates.
On March 1, 2018, Maryland lawmakers unanimously approved bills that require correctional facilities to provide free feminine hygiene products to all inmates.
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The state mandate was a huge win for feminists and activists who've been pushing for inmate rights. Reproductive rights groups have long advocated for making hygiene products more accessible for inmates. Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, has been particularly outspoken about fair treatment for all women, and the need for state policies that make hygiene products accessible for incarcerated women. Philip's pointed out that women who've been incarcerated by the state haven't been able to get the supplies that they need.
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Inside or outside of prison, it's expensive to be a woman, particularly if you menstruate.
The good news? Federal policies actually make a lot of sense on this issue. But due to a weird quirk in U.S. prison practices, many incarcerated women will never benefit.
Although federal prisons made hygiene products free for inmates in August 2017, most incarcerated women are actually in state prisons or local jails. This means that fewer than 10% of female inmates benefited from the new federal measures. Thus, most female inmates rely on state legislation to see changes in their prison. But, the problem of expensive or inaccessible products isn't limited to prisoners, though.
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Even for women who've never seen a jail cell, a box of pads or tampons is pricey, ranging anywhere from $6 to $10 at a typical drugstore. Over the course of a lifetime, at a box of tampons or pads per month, the average person can easily spend thousands of dollars on hygiene products, and nearly $20,000 on products related to menstrual cycles, such as panty liners, Midol, and birth control.
Due to what's been deemed the “pink tax”, women have increasingly criticized the costs of hygiene-related and other products that are largely used by women. Low income communities are particularly vulnerable to these expenses, and are often unable to afford all of the costs that come with having a period.
People who have periods have very different experiences from one another. Some experience extreme pain, have very heavy flows, and experience periods for more than seven days. Still, many prisons historically allocate a certain number of pads per month.
This disenfranchises women inmates with heavier or elongated flows. Women make roughly 75 cents a day for a day's work, and a 24-pack of pads is just over $2.50 in some states. With other necessities like deodorant, toothpaste, and edible food, saving for pads can be a challenge. When inmates need more hygiene products, they’re forced to rely on whatever income they make through the prison system to buy additional products.
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In a system that’s largely — and rightfully — criticized for its dehumanizing treatment of inmates, making hygiene products more accessible is a good step towards progress.
As activists continue to push for inmate rights through various movements, such as the #LetItFlow campaign, there’s hope that other states will continue to shift policies to make prisons less dehumanizing to women. Recently, Arizona increased the number of pads it offers to inmates from 12 to 36.
Humans, regardless of background, experience, or misdeeds deserve rights to health, safety, and livelihood. By providing basic — yet necessary — products, our society can continue to move towards a more equitable and humane world for all.