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Opinion In prison, having your period can put your life in danger

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Gabrielle A. Perry is an epidemiologist in New Orleans and the founder of the Thurman Perry Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and assistance to currently and formerly incarcerated women and girls.

For women in prison, something as natural and uncontrollable as having your period can put your life in danger.

A recent series in Ms. magazine about menstrual equity — the ability to access affordable, safe period products — reported on the trauma experienced by incarcerated women who have been denied these necessities. These women have suffered not only dreadful health outcomes, but also humiliation and sexual abuse, including rape, at the hands of prison staff who use sex as a bartering tool.

As a formerly incarcerated woman and the leader of an organization that seeks to help women who have experienced incarceration, I find such reports disturbing, but not shocking. Often, such abuses are described as rarities or one-offs. But I have lived this. Thousands of women face these conditions every day.

Approximately 230,000 women are incarcerated in local, state, youth, tribal, military or federal correctional facilities. The majority in state and federal prisons are between the ages of 20 and 40. Yet 38 states have no laws mandating that incarcerated women be given menstrual products while housed in correctional facilities. And the facilities in states that do provide products often supply low-quality versions or simply do not provide enough.

The lack of access to period products can have devastating effects on reproductive health and safety, as they resort to harmful mitigation measures to maintain their dignity — or fall prey to guards’ coercion to gain access to supplies. As the American Civil Liberties Union has said, “Incarcerated individuals and those caught in the criminal justice system often beg or bargain with staff for basic hygiene needs, part of a degrading and dehumanizing power imbalance.”

In 2019, state Rep. Leslie Herod (D) spoke to the Colorado House about how incarcerated women were being forced to perform sex acts in exchange for menstrual products. A 2018 New York magazine piece about rape at Rikers Island noted that guards had reportedly rationed menstrual supplies as a “form of intimidation or punishment.” In 2016, American University law professor Brenda V. Smith told HuffPost that she was aware of numerous rape cases related to women exchanging sex for period products.

Correctional facilities in multiple states have been sued for these abuses. In 2020, for instance, formerly incarcerated women from the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey filed a lawsuit alleging that prison staff had demanded sexual favors in exchange for toilet paper and sanitary pads.

And sexual abuse is not the only horror. Without menstrual products, women in prison resort to using mattress stuffing, ripped bedsheets, socks, toilet paper and soiled, days old tampons. These menstrual mitigation measures, acts that women perform to contain their periods when products are unavailable, can result in painful, dangerous, even fatal medical outcomes — including toxic shock syndrome (which can lead to sepsis) and reproductive infections — in environments where women have also been known to be deprived of access to basic medical care.

Even if incarcerated women do gain access to medical treatment, they might encounter sexual abuse by those charged with maintaining their health — as evidenced by the case of a former Oregon Department of Corrections nurse who earlier this month was charged with sexually assaulting a dozen women in custody.

These issues are of grave concern when for nearly four decades, women and girls have been the fastest-growing group of incarcerated people in the United States, and when the number of women serving sentences of life without parole has grown by 43 percent since 2008.

These women are mothers, sisters, daughters and friends. They are people who deserve dignity.

Cost is one barrier to access. In my home state of Louisiana, incarcerated women might earn only 4 cents to $1 per hour. Meanwhile, a pack of 20 cardboard-applicator tampons will cost them approximately $13 via prison commissary. This means a woman would need to work between 13 and 325 hours before she could afford a single box of tampons that might last through one period.

What can the public do? First, donate to a nonprofit organization such as mine, the Pad Project or Love Your Menses — all working to ensure menstrual equity for women who cannot access or afford quality period products on their own. Second, urge legislators in your state to support the federal Menstrual Equity for All Act, which would mandate that “all incarcerated individuals and detainees” be given “access to menstrual products on demand and at no cost.”

Menstrual equity is a human right. And incarcerated women’s lack of access to menstrual products is a public health and humanitarian crisis. There is no reason for more women and girls to suffer life-altering, even fatal consequences while simply trying to survive in an inhumane system.