The Uncomfortable, Taboo Reality Facing Many Female Prisoners

Female inmates interact in their cell at the Timpanogos Women's Correctional Unit during a media tour Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015, at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, Utah. Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he's opposed to the idea of allowing a state commission to pick a location to build a new prison instead of leaving the decision with the Legislature. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

From ATTN/ By Laura Donovan

Earlier this year, ATTN: reported on an overlooked issue for homeless women: lack of accessibility to feminine products on the streets. Some of the women interviewed said they had stopped menstruating, which can be caused by extreme stress and poor nutrition, among other things. Female inmates also have trouble accessing these personal hygiene products, and the prison guards are often not much help.

Chandra Bozelko, who spent more than six years at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, writes that she experienced this problem firsthand while serving time, and the experience posed sanitary risks to her and the other prisoners. According to Bozelko, she and her fellow inmates were given about 10 menstrual pads each per week. This might seem sufficient for a four to seven day cycle, but it is important to remember that many women outside prison go through several pads a day, especially on heavier menstruation days, so the limited number of pads distributed to prisoners can result in female inmates using one pad far longer than they should.

“[The situation allowed] for only one change a day in an average five-day monthly cycle,” she writes. “The lack of sanitary supplies is so bad in women’s prisons that I have seen pads fly right out of an inmate’s pants: prison maxi pads don’t have wings and they have only average adhesive so, when a woman wears the same pad for several days because she can’t find a fresh one, that pad often fails to stick to her underwear and the pad falls out. It’s disgusting but it’s true.”

Bozelko even found herself having to create an adult diaper out of six pads to prevent it from falling out of her underwear. Though she had the funds to buy extra pads from the prison commissary, she was aware that many of her fellow inmates were not so lucky. Low paying prison jobs, can make it hard to buy extra personal hygiene products. Prisoner minimum wage is 23 cents an hour and inmates can receive up to $1.15 per hour.

“[A]pproximately 80 percent of inmates are indigent and cannot afford to pay the $2.63 the maxi pads cost per package of 24, as most earn 75 cents a day and need to buy other necessities like toothpaste ($1.50, or two days’ pay) and deodorant ($1.93, almost three days’ pay),” she writes. “Sometimes I couldn’t get the pads because the commissary ran out: they kept them in short supply as it appeared I was the only one buying them.”

This affects female inmates everywhere. Last year, the ACLU of Michigan represented eight female inmates of the Muskegon County Jail in a lawsuit on this very issue. The women said they were denied access to clean underwear, feminine products, and toilet paper, causing some women to “bleed through their clothes.”

“From health hazards to dehumanizing, unconstitutional procedures, conditions at the Muskegon County Jail are utterly deplorable,” Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement. “Muskegon County has abdicated its constitutional duty to ensure conditions of confinement at the jail just and consistent with health, safety, and human dignity.”

Latrece Baker, who has been incarcerated at the Muskegon County Jail on more than one occasion, reiterated in a statement that feminine products were few and far between at the prison.

“The only way to get underwear is to purchase it,” she said. “The jail does not provide enough feminine hygiene products. When inmates ask for pads, the staff often takes hours or even days to respond to their requests.”

Maya Schenwar, who has worked with many incarcerated women before, said last year that this common issue can cause certain areas of the prison to smell, especially if more than one female is menstruating at once.

“There are never enough feminine hygiene products to go around,” Schenwar said. “The hygiene-product shortage amounts to far more than an annoying inconvenience. Women described to me the discomfort and smell, especially in the summer, of living in close quarters with other women who are often menstruating simultaneously.”

A few years ago, an inmate in Washington wrote that she didn’t realize how hard it would be to menstruate until she landed behind bars.

“I have found, as have so many others, that bleeding in prison is truly a messed up experience,” she wrote. “It is an experience that either intentionally works to degrade inmates, or degrades us as a result of cost-saving measures; either way, the results are the same. Prison makes us hate a part of our selves; it turns us against our own bodies … Most people in here describe having your period in prison as one of the worst things about being locked up. It creates stress and uncertainty due to the conditions that we have to deal with.”