Female inmates in Maryland are still paying for tampons, sometimes at high prices, despite a law requiring free access to feminine hygiene products in the state’s prison system.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed legislation last year to ensure a free supply for female prisoners beginning in October 2018. But months later, inmates at the women’s prison say they still must buy the products they need.
An inmate recently paid $5.69 for a box of 18 supersize tampons, according to a commissary receipt reviewed by The Washington Post. Online retailers sell boxes with twice as many tampons for the same price or less.
The lawmaker behind the measure, Sen. Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), said she is shocked and disappointed that women are still paying out-of-pocket.
“This is about fundamental human dignity and access to a basic necessity,” Lee said this week. “We thought it was common sense.”
Lee urged the Hogan administration to move quickly to implement the policy as the General Assembly intended.
Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert L. Green visited the women’s prison in Jessup for the first time Tuesday and in an interview afterward confirmed the policy was not being followed consistently throughout the system, including at Jessup.
“I’m taking immediate steps to make sure we are meeting the law. It will be done. This is going to be fixed,” Green, who has been in his job for a few weeks, said after visiting the prison that houses 700 women. “We’re going to make sure they know they have a choice — and at no cost.”
Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor “strongly supports Secretary Green’s efforts” to make sure the law is being fully implemented. That it was not already “is clearly cause for concern, and we are looking into it,” he said.
The state measure, passed unanimously, reflects a national effort to increase access to menstrual products inside and outside the prison system for women and girls who are poor.
When Congress passed legislation in December to overhaul the criminal justice system, it included a requirement that federal prisons provide free tampons and sanitary pads to inmates in the U.S. system. The effort, pressed by Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), was framed as a civil rights issue for incarcerated women.
Criminal justice advocate Kimberly Haven, a former inmate, was one of the leaders of the Maryland legislative effort.
Requiring inmates to pay for tampons, she said, means some women without financial support have to rely on the free, less absorbent sanitary pads handed out each month. Inmate wages, she said, do not begin to cover the cost of tampons.
“Do I buy soap, shampoo and toothpaste or do I spring for a $5.69 box of tampons? It’s a choice that women should not have to make,” Haven said.
“The state has the obligation to make these products available, on demand, and a woman should have the right to choose a product that’s right for her,” Haven said.
Every month at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, inmates receive three packets containing eight sanitary pads each. Haven and other advocates describe the pads as flimsy.
Without a steady supply of tampons, Haven said, inmates routinely turn down visits with family members and lawyers for fear of leaks and ruining their clothes because of the subpar pads. Many women, including Haven, have also resorted to fashioning their own tampons out of the pads, which can pose health risks.
Under the measure signed by Hogan in April 2018, correctional facilities must have a policy “requiring menstrual hygiene products to be provided at no cost to a female inmate.” Officials are also required to ensure a “sufficient supply” to “meet the needs of the inmate population at all times.” The definition in the law includes tampons and sanitary napkins.
The proposed fiscal 2019 budget included about $81,000 for supplies at both the women’s prison and the booking and intake center in Baltimore, the analysis shows.
At times, the women’s prison has received donations of tampons, but Haven said the state government — not the community — should be providing the most basic of feminine hygiene supplies.
The 100 women in the custody of the District’s Department of Corrections are given sanitary pads, but not tampons, a spokeswoman said.
At federal prison facilities, female inmates now choose from a variety of free products, including two sizes of tampons, two sizes of pads, and panty liners.
A similar law passed in Virginia in 2018 has been slow to take hold, according to advocates. The Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition helped finalize regulations in January to require facilities to provide free tampons and pads as needed. Holly Seibold, who is part of the coalition, said she has not been able to verify that all corrections facilities are complying.
“We’re continuing to assess and hold them accountable,” said Seibold, who founded Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters. “It takes constant monitoring.”