Menstrual products are absolutely essential to a woman’s hygiene and health. Yet for female prisoners across the country, access to these products often depends on whims of guards and administrators — resulting regularly, prison reform advocates say, in humiliation and illness.

Where jail and prison officials guard access to free tampons and pads, that access is often held over the heads of women who need the products for a basic bodily function. And while the products are typically offered for sale, too, they are exorbitantly priced.

When the products are withheld for whatever reason, women suffer, such as the woman in Maryland who was forced to make her own feminine products out of toilet paper, leading to toxic shock and a hysterectomy. Or the women with blood clots who was forced to prove she needed thicker pads by bringing an officer a bag full of used ones.

It is unhealthy, inhumane, and an affront to dignity.

In response, the Federal Bureau of Prisons last year issued a memo ordering all its facilities to ensure female inmates have access to a range of menstrual products at no cost. The recently passed criminal justice reform bill put that policy in law.

It was a step in the right direction, but only one step — the vast majority of female prisoners are held by state and local authorities, so they face a patchwork of policies set individually by those jurisdictions.

In Maine, the Department of Corrections says generic-brand feminine hygiene products are left out for women to take what they need 24 hours a day. Special pads, IUDs, birth control and other related products are available if necessary.

The Portland Press Herald reached out to all 11 jails; all eight that responded said menstrual products are free to prisoners.

But access is still uneven. Some, like Kennebec County Jail, leave boxes of the products out for prisoners to grab whenever necessary, while others, such as Somerset County Jail, only give out one at a time.

The products usually are of low quality, too, meaning women often have to ask for more.

Whether a woman needs a tampon, and how many she needs, should not be up to a jail guard. Whether a female prisoner can access basic health care when she needs to should not depend on whether she is in a guard’s good graces, and it shouldn’t depend on the personal feelings of whoever is the local sheriff or the commissioner of the Department of Corrections.

L.D. 628, a bill proposed by Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, would help by making comprehensive access to free menstrual products a right for women in the state prison system or one of the county jails.

The bill shouldn’t stop there — the products should be free, but they should also be of adequate quality, and they should be available as needed, without requiring permission.

Testimony and news stories in Maine and elsewhere have shown that the power has been abused. It’s time to take it off the table.

 

 


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