The federal Bureau of Prisons quietly issued a new policy last week requiring prisons to provide free tampons and maxi-pads to female inmates.
The new operations memorandum was released less than a month after Sen. Kamala Harris, D-CA, and three other Democratic senators introduced a bill that would have made the same policy change.
Advocates say that in many prisons and jails around the country, women held behind bars have trouble getting tampons, because of lack of supplies, guards and officials denying their requests, or high prices at the prison commissary.
“It is a humiliating and degrading experience for these women,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, the author of a forthcoming book on menstrual policy in the U.S. and a vice president at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s kind of astonishing that in this day and age these products aren’t thought of as a necessity.”
The BOP directive is a major step forward, she said. While a 1996 Bureau policy vaguely states that “products for female hygiene needs shall be available,” the new memo is more explicit, clearly requiring that tampons, maxi-pads, and panty liners be provided to female prisoners “at no cost to the inmates.”
“I applaud this move by the Bureau of Prisons as it’s an imperative step toward ensuring we live in a civil society that recognizes the unique challenges incarcerated women face,” Harris said in an email. “Too many women reside in prison and jail facilities that don’t support basic hygiene or reproductive health, and that’s just not right.”
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman said he could not comment Friday.
The policy reform doesn’t affect state prisons or jails. “Most of the need is at state prisons and county jails,” Weiss-Wolf said, but federal policy “sets the tone for the rest of the country.” California state law mandates that female inmates in state prisons have access to menstrual products.
Harris’ bill, called the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, would also ban prisons from shackling pregnant women, improve visitation rules in prisons, and require the BOP to provide inmates parenting classes, among other reforms. It was also sponsored by Sens. Cory Booker, D-NJ; Elizabeth Warren, D-MA; and Dick Durbin, D-IL.
Women are one of the fastest growing populations in U.S. jails and prisons. The number of women in prison rose by over 800% between 1977 and 2007, compared to a 400% growth rate for men, according to the Women’s Prison Association.
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