Less than a month after Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill that would-among other things-require federal prisons to provide incarcerated women with tampons and pads at no cost, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has quietly issued a memo that mandates that federal prisons must guarantee women access to menstrual products for free.
Currently, federal prisons stock tampons and pads, but activists and women in prison have said that supplies are not only of subpar quality, but aren’t even consistently made available to the rapidly growing female prison population. According to the Women’s Prison Association, women are one of the fastest growing populations in prisons in the U.S., with the number of incarcerated skyrocketing by over 800 percent between 1977 and 2007.
When the Correctional Association of New York polled almost 1,000 incarcerated women on the issue in 2015, more than half of the respondents said that they did not receive a sufficient number of pads to meet their needs. According to a April 2017 report in The New York Times, pads and tampons were considered such precious commodities in prisons that women could use them as bargaining chips for snacks or coffee. In the same piece, a former inmate recalled an incident at Rikers Island Prison Complex in New York City in which a correction officer “threw a bag of tampons into the air and watched as inmates dived to the ground to retrieve them, because they didn’t know when they would next be able to get tampons.”
“It turns you on yourself,” Chandra Bozelko, a writer and activist who was incarcerated in state prison in Connecticut, told the Times. “You start to hate your body.”
Harris welcomed the news from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, writing in an emailed statement to The Mercury News that the move is “an imperative step toward ensuring we live in a civil society that recognized the unique challenges incarcerated women face.”
Meanwhile, in an emailed statement to ELLE.com, Sen. Booker said that while he was pleased to see the change-which expressly outlines that a variety of supplies, including tampons, maxi-pads, and panty liners must be accessible to inmates for free-he added that a “policy memo is just words on a piece of paper unless it’s properly enforced.” Booker said he would be looking for evidence that the Bureau is committed to comprehensive implementation across all its facilities. Still, even if it achieves that, the numbers suggest that much more aggressive reforms will need to be enacted.
Case in point: Since the new policy will not affect women held in state prisons or municipal facilities, where the majority incarcerated women serve their time, only the approximately 12,700 women who are currently held in federal prisons will benefit from the change.
This story has been updated with a statement from Sen. Booker.