By Lauren Winters

Lauren Winters is a graduate of Columbia University, with concentrations in Political Science and Human Rights. Outside of her studies, she works in civil society and volunteers for Self Offense, an anti-harassment organization. 

Toilet paper is not the only thing being stockpiled during this COVID-19 crisis. In the past two weeks, major retailers have faced widespread shortages of tampons—so much so that Tampax’s store location tool has directed customers to stores states away from their location. The crisis has made it clear that menstruators are terrified of going without their preferred products, yet we do not provide any protections, crisis or not, for some of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals, people in detention.

While 2018’s FIRST STEP Act required the Bureau of Prisons to provide free tampons and menstrual pads in federal correction centers, state prisons largely do not offer the same guarantee to their approximately 98,000 menstruators. From 1978 to 2015, the number of women in state prisons grew by nine times, with no sign of stopping; women are also the fastest-growing population in jails nationally. For this quickly growing population of incarcerated menstruators, obtaining enough menstrual products each month can be an ordeal. Some states and localities, such as the state of New York, have followed in the footsteps of the federal penitentiary system, but in many cases, the laws are only loosely enforced, and menstruators continue to struggle for supplies.

Those without access to free materials purchase pads and tampons at the prison commissary, where prices are often inflated. Before the FIRST STEP Act, it might have cost an incarcerated menstruator $5.55 to buy just two tampons in a federal prison, and in some local cases, facilities even have a cap on the number of menstrual products each individual is able to purchase. While this price seems steep to the average person, it could be devastating to someone operating on a typical incarcerated person’s salary. Depending on the employment opportunities in the facility, an incarcerated person can expect to earn between $0.75-$1.25 per hour, with a daily maximum average of $3.45. The average menstruator uses about twenty tampons per cycle, so an incarcerated menstruator would need to work sixteen days to pay for the tampons necessary in a single cycle. To make matters worse, on average, incarcerated women had a median income of less than $14,000 prior to their conviction, so in many cases, their loved ones may not be able to add enough to their commissary to pay for an adequate supply of menstrual products. The math simply does not add up. 

Now, some of you may think that it is not the government’s job to pay for the menstrual products of incarcerated people. After all, they committed a crime. As Maine representative Pickett said last year, “the correctional system was never meant to be a country club.” While I cannot speak to every individual’s particular case or character, that does not matter. What matters is that everyone deserves, and is fully entitled to, healthcare under the Eighth Amendment. These protections were created to protect vulnerable people in detention, and it is at these moments of vulnerability—when people are unequivocally unable to provide for themselves— that it is pivotal to defend basic human dignity. Any menstruator knows that menstrual products are essential to catch the flow, a far cry from country-club luxury.

If you are still skeptical whether menstrual products are too luxurious to be considered healthcare, know this: without access to proper menstrual products, women are forced to ration the products they have, create makeshift versions, or negotiate with guards for access to products—all of which have a debilitating effect on physical and mental health and self-esteem. As one formerly incarcerated woman noted, “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.” Her experience is just one in a myriad of horror stories—stories of menstruators being forced to show the guards their used products, being denied the ability to shower, or having to wear blood-stained clothing for days on end.

To grant menstruators autonomy over their bodies is to empower them to reclaim a sense of control. When we consider the needs of incarcerated people, it is important to remember that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Our system as it exists today effectively denies incarcerated menstruators access to menstrual products because of the perception that they are a luxury, an unnecessary expense for incarcerated people. However, ensuring access to free menstrual products across all levels of the penitentiary system mirrors society as a whole in what we consider essential—and for whom. 

I invite you to consider what it means to be without a pad or a tampon. To consider what we collectively deem to be essential or not. To consider whether the ability to control one’s hygiene should be a luxury or a right. If you find it to be the latter, support legislation to guarantee free access to menstrual products.

In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler