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Viagra Approved, Tampons Denied

Two State Legislatures Vote to Deny Free Access to Feminine Hygiene Products to Inmates

It’s been nearly three years since a video of a Jefferson County, Kentucky District Court Judge went viral with her heartfelt reaction to a female defendant who appeared bottomless in her courtroom.

In the video, Judge Amber Wolf is clearly outraged and immediately pauses the hearing to call the local jail and discern how this could have happened. The video ends with the Judge scolding the jail’s director and apologizing to the defendant for the treatment she experienced, describing it as ‘inhumane.’ When the video made its way around the internet it spawned more than just public outcry among the general public, it put real pressure on lawmakers to accept an audience with justice reform advocates who’d been drafting legislation to address female inmate health for decades, to no avail.

In a YouGov survey released in 2017, more than 2,000 American adults released this week, 33 percent of men believed that affordable tampons and pads should be considered luxury items (or privileges) rather than medical necessities, and 24 percent of women agreed.

Image courtesy of and Copyright of Correctional Association of New York

This sentiment explains why in many institutions, feminine hygiene products are not categorized or managed as basic medical supplies, though hair products such as Rogaine as are explicitly categorized as such.

It’s a largely overlooked issue among a slew of human rights concerns in our criminal justice system. Still, it takes little effort to sympathize with the implications and indignities of being denied menstrual products or rationed to a hazardous 1–3 pads per month, a popular limit in many correctional facilities. Women are forced to get very creative, very fast, but often cannot cut up enough pillow cases or bargain for sufficient tissue to avoid the indignant experience of soiling and sitting in their own waste.

Anne M. Rios, Esq., Executive Director of Think Dignity, says that for many, the cost of these products above what is rationed is prohibitive, and when deciding whether or not they are going to eat or buy menstrual products the majority of folks will choose eating.

“This leads to unsanitary practices like using old socks, rags or clothes as pads, which can lead to significant health risks like HPV and incontinence,” she said.

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS), is a potentially fatal illness caused by a buildup of bacteria from menstruation (often from leaving in a tampon for a prolonged period of time). TSS symptoms include a high fever, low blood pressure, and pinkish skin, similar to the appearance of one who’d touched boiling water.

Correctional offices consistently deny the allegations that they do not provide hygiene products or unsuitable alternatives to them. The Jefferson County facility that Judge Wolf called in the now infamous video has vehemently denied that the inmate was bottomless throughout her 3-day stay. In Arizona, the state Department of Corrections was cited for a toilet paper shortage, to which the spokesman, Andrew Wilder, admitted, however, he blamed it on the inmates, stating: “(the reality is that some inmates misuse the toilet paper or misrepresent themselves when asking for more.”

Statewide Map of 2019 Legislative Bills Concerning Women’s Health in Correctional Facilities, Owner: cut50.org

Last year, a group of Democratic US senators introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act. Shortly after the bill’s introduction, the Federal Bureau for Prisons drafted a memo making tampons and pads available free of charge to federal prisoners. At the state level, dozens of bills have been introduced to replicate the federal action, but progress is as of yet, inconclusive.

In Alabama, a measure was introduced by a newly elected congresswoman, Rolanda Hollis (D-Birmingham). As positive as the reception has been thus far, multiple amendments have already been made, including a change in language that would prevent facilities from being held to any strict timeline. Instead, the amendments suggested by other legislators’ hinges on an ambiguous good faith effort to provide the hygiene products ‘as soon as is practicable.’ Such broad language in the legislation leaves a door wide open for negligence on the part of state correctional departments and presents an obstacle for potential plaintiffs.

Despite the legislative pitfalls, advocates remain hopeful that the conversation is happening. “The country, in general, is waking up to the idea that maybe we need to be doing more for our female population,” says Monica Cooper, a former inmate, and co-founder of the Maryland Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that aims to support ex-offenders’ successful reentry into society.

The Maryland Justice Project is a partner to the Dignity for Incarcerated Women campaign, an initiative launched by cut50. You can do more to help support this campaign and get involved here: https://www.cut50.org/dignity

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A collection of essays, testimonials, articles, and explainers about the American criminal legal system, and recent developments related to justice. Or…related to injustice, as it were.

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Simone Chérie

Simone Chérie

Legal Reform Advocate and Perpetual Optimist. 👩🏽‍💻Grad Student @EmoryLaw.

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