Rep. Richard Pickett of Dixfield, Maine, has struck a nerve with menstrual equity advocates after suggesting menstrual products are a luxury, and people who are incarcerated don’t deserve them.
During the state’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting on Friday, the Republican congressman voted against bill LD 628, which passed with 6-4 votes to provide incarcerated women in Maine with comprehensive access to sanitary products such as tampons, sanitary pads, and menstrual cups.
“Quite frankly, and I don't mean this in any disrespect, the jail system and the correctional system was never meant to be a country club,” Pickett said, according to the Maine Beacon.
Supporters of the bill argued that incarcerated people don’t have adequate access to menstrual products. Under the US’ First Step Act, passed in 2018, federal prisons must guarantee free menstrual products to people who menstruate, but few states and county prisons –– where most people, and 95% of women, are incarcerated –– have the same policies. While Maine jails already provide free access to menstrual products, many people have to request them.
Rep. Pickett: "Quite frankly, and I don't mean this in any disrespect, the jail system and the correctional system was never meant to be a country club..they have a right to have these&they have them. If that wasn't the case, then I would be supporting the motion, but they do."— Alex Acquisto (@AcquistoA) March 15, 2019
Whitney Parrish, director of policy and program for the Maine Women’s Lobby, told Newsweek that people are usually given a supply of low-quality menstrual products in prison. When they run out, they’re left to use their own money and sometimes have to choose between making phone calls to family — or an attorney — and period products. Women of color, who are disproportionately impoverished, make up nearly 50% of the female prison population and two-thirds of local jail populations, and are more likely to not have the funds for these products. Many people who menstruate resort to using unsafe materials to manage their periods, like clothing or notebook paper, according to Parrish.
Columnist Chandra Bozelko, the first inmate to publish a column in a non-prison newspaper from behind bars called “Prisons Diaries,” told Global Citizen she finds Pickett’s comments to be “more than tone deaf” and “misogynistic.”
Bozelko, who received overwhelming public support after writing about the realities of managing menstruation in prison, said Pickett is “behind the times.” After being incarcerated for six years in Connecticut, she said a lack of products isn’t the only barrier to safe menstrual hygiene management for incarcerated people.
“I know that the supplies were there. They had more than about tampons and pads to give out,” Bozelko said. “It's the distribution.”
People have to go through guards, who are predominantly male, to access period products, which Bozelko said sets up a “gender battle.” People in positions of power who do not menstruate might not understand the importance of menstrual hygiene management and can bar access to resources.
"As long as menstrual products are considered a privilege, they can be taken away on a whim and used to coerce or humiliate women and others who menstruate," Lauren Kuhlik, a reproductive rights-focused ACLU fellow working on the organization's National Prison Project, told Global Citizen. Putting the supplies in bathrooms is one way to improve accessibility, Bozelko said.
Celeste A. Mergens, founder and CEO of the menstrual health care and education nonprofit Days for Girls, told Global Citizen that legislative leaders who aren’t standing up for menstrual health rights don’t understand the consequences of not having access to the basic necessity of quality menstrual care products.
“They have never had to risk their health, confidence, and dignity for lack as something as basic as a pad. They’ve never had to ask someone of authority and the ability to extort them for a pad,” Mergens said. Providing access to period products, she explained, in all prisons would eliminate their contraband and extortion power, while stabilizing supply demand.
According to Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice and author of Period Gone Public, Pickett’s stance is an outlier. Weiss-Wolf, who told Global Citizen she finds Pickett’s comment “disappointing,” “careless,” “sexist,” and “undignified,” noted there’s robust bipartisan support for access to menstrual hygiene in prisons with states like New York and Virginia recently passing legislation.
More states are supporting bills to secure free access to period products in schools, too. In order to get more menstrual health legislation signed on the city and state level, Pickett said people need to actively break period myths.
“All citizens can participate in the necessity of destigmatizing menstruation by talking about it freely and openly, and in frames that do not undermine and marginalize people who menstruate,” Weiss-Wolf suggested.
Bozelko also recommends people tell local and state representatives that they support women who have limited access to basic necessities.
“Women, whether they're incarcerated, in a shelter, or struggling with money –– should get the supplies they need to keep themselves clean and healthy,” Bozelko said.