In the first series of Orange Is The New Black, Piper Chapman walked around with shower shoes made out of maxi pads. And yes, sometimes female prisoners do use their sanitary towels for other things; they make them into a sleep mask or earplugs. But most of the time, there are too little hygiene products going around to even deal with their monthly bleeding.
For most women, menstruation isn’t their favourite time of the month. For female prisoners, it’s worse. Chandra Bozelko, who blogs about her experiences on Prison-diaries.com, was incarcerated for more than six years at York Correctional Institution in Connecticut (USA). In this prison, two bunkmates received five pads per week to split. This amount allows for one change a day in an average five day cycle. Definitely not enough.
Female inmates could purchase extra sanitary supplies, but only if they had enough money. Which often wasn’t the case, as the women were being paid just 75 cents per day when working in the prison. Replacing pads with toilet paper wasn’t an option either, as loo roll was rationed too. In The Guardian Bozelko wrote: ‘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.’
24 sanitary pads per cycle
Menstrual hygiene isn’t specifically mentioned in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Therefore the sanitary situation won’t be the same in every correctional facility. However, also a report of the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York, containing health care data about prisons in the state of New York, stated insufficient sanitary napkins supplies as a problem. One respondent to the survey wrote: ‘My period lasts seven days… Sometimes I have to wear four at a time because they are so thin.’ Usually, the prisoners were allowed 24 sanitary pads per cycle. Women who needed more had to apply for a special permit, which in some prisons included having to show their used napkins before they could ask for new ones.
In the UK, there’s also room for improvement. In ‘A Period In Custody: Menstruation and the Imprisoned Body’. Dr Catrin Smith from the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University (Australia), writes about her research in a women’s prison in England. Her findings suggest a high level of menstrual distress in the prisoners. One of the main issues was that bodily needs were often secondary to the needs of the prison regime. One woman describes: ‘I was at reception and I asked for a tampon but wasn’t given one. Then I had to be examined and there was blood trickling down my legs.’
According to Bozelko, prisons would keep the sanitary supplies limited to reinforce the prisoners’ feelings of powerlessness. She states in The Guardian: ‘To ask a macho guard for a tampon is humiliating. But it’s more than that: it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that, ultimately, the prison controls your cleanliness, your health and your feelings of self-esteem.’