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Water & Sanitation

Incarcerated Women in Maryland Are Still Paying for Tampons That Are Supposed to Be Free


Why Global Citizens Should Care
People affected by period poverty all around the world lack access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, or waste management. To end extreme poverty, we must ensure all people have access to water and sanitation in prisons. You can help us take action on this issue here.

As of October 2018, incarcerated women in Maryland are supposed to receive free sanitary products in prison. But one state official recently learned that a correctional facility in the town of Jessup still sells tampons, and they’re not cheap.

On Tuesday, new Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert L. Green visited the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup, which houses 700 women. Green confirmed that the free sanitary product policy isn’t being enforced there, or throughout the system, according to the Washington Post.

Criminal justice advocate Kimberly Haven, who was formerly incarcerated, helped lead the Maryland legislative effort to provide free sanitary products in prisons with the Reproductive Justice Inside coalition. Haven told Global Citizen that when she talked to elected representatives about the bill, they couldn’t believe that the lack of sanitary products was a problem that needed to be addressed.

“Wages for jobs within the institution aren’t enough for you to afford tampons,” Haven explained.

“You’re left with the choice of do I buy shampoo, or soap or laundry detergent, or do I buy tampons?”

Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed legislation in 2018 to ensure women in prisons receive free period products under the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. The bill, which was part of the effort to overhaul the criminal justice system, received bipartisan support and passed unanimously in Congress. The proposed fiscal 2019 budget included about $81,000 for sanitary products in prisons, according to the Washington Post.

Read More: Maine Congressman Claims Free Period Products Don't Belong in Jail Because It's Not a 'Country Club'

“Here we are nine months later and the problem still exists,” Haven said.

Haven heard directly from an official that the Maryland Correctional Institution was adequately meeting women’s menstrual hygiene needs following the bill. But later, people inside the prison and those who were newly released notified her that nothing had changed.

One incarcerated woman recently paid $5.69 for a box of 18 supersize tampons, according to the Washington Post, which is more expensive than they are sold for online. 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. 

At federal prisons, incarcerated women can choose from a variety of products to manage their periods. On a state level, the ability of sanitary products seems to be inconsistent.  At the District’s Department of Corrections, 100 women in custody only have access to pads, not tampons, according to the Washington Post. And women at Maryland Correctional Institution receive three packets containing eight sanitary pads each on a monthly basis, which, according to Haven, doesn’t suffice.

If a woman who has a period in prison runs out of sanitary products, she resorts to unsafe alternatives. Many turn down visits to see their attorneys or children because they fear leaks and are too embarrassed, according to Haven. 

“Or you do what I had to do, which was make your own tampons and run the health risks that are associated with rolling your own tampons out of substandard sanitary napkins,” she said.

Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), the lawmaker behind the measure, said she is shocked and disappointed that women are paying for sanitary products in prison, according to the Washington Post.

It is fairly common that legislation will pass that directs correctional facilities to make some kind of policy or practice change, and then it’s not implemented, Elizabeth Swavola, senior program associate with the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections, told Global Citizen. This happens when legislation doesn’t include monitoring or any kind of repercussion if it’s not followed. 

“To some extent prisons and jails are closed facilities,” Swavolva said. “We often don’t know what’s happening behind the walls. Follow-through can be a challenge.”

Advocates have run into similar problems after passing anti-shackling laws, which prohibit the use of chains and shackles on pregnant women around the country. Prisons largely ignore them, Amy Fettig, deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Prison Project, told Global Citizen. New laws have to be cast that demand compliance, she explained.

“The assumption is that the people in our prisons and jails and juvenile detention centers don’t have any power, they don’t have any political influence, so these institutions feel that they can do anything,” Fettig explained, “and that’s definitely not true.”

Often it’s the incarcerated women who are exposing the lack of implementation with these types of bills, according to Swavolva.

Given that Maryland has passed some incredibly important laws to protect the health and safety of women behind bars (like the exclusion of pregnant women from solitary confinement), Fettig worries as to whether or not prisons will implement these laws of their own free will. 

Criminal justice advocates want to see correctional facilities verify that adequate supplies of tampons and sanitary supplies are being ordered, including detailed information on quantity, and frequency. 

To ensure that people who are incarcerated are being treated humanely and with dignity, Swavolva suggests that constituents write to elected officials to let them know that the community cares.

The public must demand that these facilities follow the law, Fettig explained. 

“We need to keep our eye on these institutions and watch everything that they do,” she said.