The change came three weeks after a bill was introduced by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to provide the products free to incarcerated women. The provision is part a larger package of proposed overhauls meant to improve basic rights for the women who comprise the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.
In a statement, Booker said he was "encouraged" that the Bureau of Prisons is finally "explicitly requiring" that the products be provided free of charge to incarcerated women. He said he plans to monitor enforcement. "A policy memo is just words on a piece of paper unless it's properly enforced."
Grass-roots activists are working to ease the stigma surrounding menstruation and improve the availability of products to women who are homeless or poor or have limited access to the products they need to care for their basic health and hygiene needs. Many say that tampons and pads should be provided freely, like toilet paper, in public facilities.
An increasing number of lawmakers have taken up the cause, introducing bills to exempt tampons and pads from state and local taxes and make them available free at public schools and workplaces. Four states — New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Florida — ultimately approved sales-tax exemptions, along with the cities of Chicago and Washington.
Last year, the New York City Council passed first-of-its-kind legislation making menstrual products freely available in public schools, shelters and jails. Colorado lawmakers approved a plan to provide free tampons and pads to inmates.
Activists said the policy shift coming from the Justice Department is a major validation of the movement.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, an attorney and leading activist in the movement, said the new guidance is an "extremely powerful" statement and an illustration that the movement has bipartisan support. The Justice Department is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican.
She cautioned that enforcement could be difficult because the guidance does little to address a major hurdle to access. In many facilities, the products are doled out by corrections officers, and women must ask for them each time they need them.
"Guards can denigrate or humiliate or abuse them," she said. "They can still say no."
There is little consistency across the criminal justice system when it comes to menstrual hygiene. Some jails and prisons provide pads that women can help themselves to as needed; many do not.
Justin Long, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, says the guidance aims to improve consistency in the selection of products available free in the federal prison system that serves about 13,000 women.
The previous policy stated broadly that "Products for female hygiene needs shall be available." But those products varied by facility. The revised policy details that female inmates will be able to choose between two sizes of tampons, two sizes of pads and panty liners.
Andrea James, executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, served time in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., where, she said, a crate full of "tiny sanitary napkins" was kept on the bathroom floor.
Tampons or more absorbent pads could be purchased in the commissary and were unaffordable to most women. James lauded the Bureau of Prisons for making the change.
"It's so important to the dignity of incarcerated women," she said.