A Hallowell lawmaker wants to mandate free access to menstrual products for women in jails and prisons.

The bill from Democratic Rep. Charlotte Warren would make Maine one of first states to put such a policy into law. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons issued a memo in 2017 that ordered free access to sanitary pads and tampons, but most incarcerated people are in state prisons and county jails that are not subject to that federal policy. States including Colorado and Maryland have begun to pass laws to extend that policy to those facilities.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, the bill’s sponsor

Warren said she heard about the idea in other states and wanted to take similar action in Maine. Officials at most jails and prisons in Maine said they provide pads and tampons for free, although most facilities require women to request these products as needed from officers.

“Unrestricted access to menstrual products by incarcerated persons is an issue of human dignity,” Warren said.

The bill does not specify the number of products an inmate could have at one time or how those products should be distributed. No one opposed the bill Friday during its first public hearing at the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, although some legislators asked questions about cost and current policy.

Anna Black, an administrator in the Maine Department of Corrections, told the committee that the state provides an unlimited supply of free pads and tampons in the bathrooms at the Maine Correctional Facility in Windham and the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, where more than 200 women and girls are incarcerated. Black said the annual cost of menstrual products for women in the Windham facility exceeds $11,000.

“It’s all about dignity,” Scott Landry, warden of the Maine Correctional Center, said in an interview. “We don’t want women to have to come back and ask for these kinds of supplies.”

The Portland Press Herald contacted the state’s 11 jails about their policies for menstrual products. Eight responded, and none said they charge for pads and tampons. Most provide both options, although York County Sheriff Bill King said the jail there provides only sanitary pads because the septic system is not equipped for tampons. Several said women can buy brand-name products in the jail commissary if they have a preference. Officials from the Androscoggin County Jail, Piscataquis County Jail and the Two Bridges Jail did not respond to requests for comment.

The jails have varying policies for distribution. Only the Kennebec County jail administrator, Capt. Rich Wurpel, said the officers leave product boxes and disposal bags accessible in women’s areas. The others said women generally must request tampons or pads from an officer, and the number distributed at any one time varied between facilities. Maj. Corey Swope at the Somerset County Jail said women receive one tampon or pad at a time, while Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols said the officers usually leave the number up to the women themselves.

“If they need them, they get them,” Nichols said. “No questions asked.”

Advocates for women and incarcerated people voiced their support for the bill.

“This is absolutely necessary, and access to these products should not be a political issue,” said Tina Heather Nadeau, an attorney and the executive director of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

They said female inmates sometimes worry about bleeding through their uniforms, which are often the only set of clothing provided to them, and the products available are often low quality for cost reasons. They also argued that access to these products should not be discretionary.

“This bill would safeguard that practice in law,” said Meagan Sway, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “Women’s basic dignity should not depend on the whims of individual officers or whoever is the commissioner of the Department of Corrections in Maine.”

Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition, said prisoners are often expected to stretch the use of their hygiene products like soap, and he said any need to purchase additional products is an added burden in indigent inmates.

“The way hygiene products are distributed within corrections for indigent prisoners, there is a discretion as to how much you get,” Jackson said.

The only law enforcement officer to speak at the hearing was King from York County. He spoke neither in favor nor in opposition to the bill, but he said the cost of upgrading the septic system at the jail to handle tampons is more than $500,000.

“This would be a hardship to York County,” he said.

The legislators requested more information about current policies for their work session on the bill.

“My guess is that a policy that determines the amount of menstrual products you can have was not written by a woman,” Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt of South Portland said.

Megan Gray can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mainemegan

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