Bleeding through Bars: How the Criminal Justice System Ignores Women’s Sanitary Needs

Image Source: The Guardian

Image Source: The Guardian

Incarcerated women face insurmountable hardships. Not only do they have to survive in a hostile prison environment that seems to be built to fail them rather than help them, they are also burdened with the misfortune of menstruation. After having been stripped of every liberty and sense of dignity possible, incarcerated women in both the US and the UK are being deprived of their rights to adequate menstrual products and sanitary facilities. This is an archetypical case of women’s rights being stripped away by a patriarchal justice system that disregards the additional burdens that women face in prison.

According to Women in Prison, 46% of incarcerated women in the UK have reported having suffered domestic violence. Meanwhile 53% report having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood. Most women in prison have therefore previously been in contact with an exploitative, physically or sexually violent man creating a complex vulnerability and relationship with men in general. The prison system capitalizes on this vulnerability, with women prisoners having to approach male guards to request menstrual products. In Arizona, there were reports of male prison guards punishing “women for possessing contraband after they ripped pads and turned them into tampons” and that women were frequently denied more pads when they requested it. In the UK, a report by The Independent Custody Visiting Association expressed its concerns after finding that female detainees were not asked about their sanitary needs, there was a lack of resources and often no female prison guard was available for women to discuss their menstrual needs. Women who have previously been abused, assaulted and exploited by men are being placed at the mercy of male prison guards to provide the basic menstrual products they are entitled to. This creates a power dynamic that undermines the importance of the woman’s needs and encourages a power hierarchy, placing the man on top. The report writes that one incident in a UK prison included a woman who had her clothes removed and was forced to be dressed in a paper suit. Even though she was on her period, they took away her underwear and she was refused any sanitary products, leaving her alone in a cell, bleeding through a paper suit.

Chandra Bolzeko, who served a prison sentence in York, USA, writes of her experiences in prison:

“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. The request is even more difficult to make when a guard complains that his tax dollars shouldn’t have to pay for your supplies. You want to explain to him that he wouldn’t have a paycheck to shed those taxes in the first place if prison staff weren’t needed to do things like feeding inmates and handing out sanitary supplies – but you say nothing because you want that maxi pad.”

Vulnerable women should not be forced to ask a man for pads and tampons at least once every single month. No woman should have to ask a man for her menstrual products. Women in prison are constantly reminded of their powerlessness, even when it comes to their bodies. There should be a dispensing system that gives the women back some form of agency and control over how their body is looked after.

In addition to promoting unequal gender power relations in prison, the system encourages a money-based hierarchy that favors wealthier women, leaving the economically poorer inmates in a more vulnerable position. In early 2018 it was revealed that an Arizona prison system “provides a maximum of 12 pads per month to all women inmates, forcing them to ration the way they manage periods, ‘free bleed’ or rely on unsanitary solutions”. If a woman needs extra pads, she should somehow earn enough money from her 15 cents an hour job to buy additional pads. Chandra writes that each cell in the York Prison receives just five pads per week to split, allowing for just one change a day in an average five-day monthly cycle. She explains that around 80% of inmates are not in a position to pay for the extra pads, and menstrual products do not take priority when women need to buy other products such as toothpaste and deodorant. Women should not have to choose between bleeding through their clothes or brushing their teeth. It’s unacceptable. It’s humiliating. It’s dehumanizing. There are reports of women having to wait hours in a holding cell for a sanitary pad, and receiving sterile gauze pads from an ambulance instead. There are reports of women having to change tampons and pads in front of CCTV cameras. There are reports of a lack of facilities meaning that women couldn’t even wash their hands after changing their pads or tampons.

The criminal justice system is openly ignoring the needs that thousands of women have on their periods. Menstrual products are not a luxury, they’re a basic right for women. No one should have to beg for menstrual products, or have no other choice than to free-bleed or stain their clothes. No one should have to be put at the mercy of a man to provide sanitary products for their body. No one should feel punished because of their period. Prisons in the US and the UK need to wake up and stop stripping women of their dignity and start providing adequate facilities and menstrual products so no woman is ever shamed during her period.

Article by Chanju Mwanza