Inside the Fight for Menstrual Equity in America’s Prisons

How many pads does a menstruating person deserve?

It’s impossible to answer such a personal question. But for the women incarcerated in American prisons, prison administrators decide for them. In many states, incarcerated women are given just 12 pads per monthno tampons and no extras. And with pay for prisoners set at $0.15 an hour, buying more at $2 or $3 a box is simply out of reach. Incarcerated women are regularly forced to choose between menstrual products and a phone call home or other necessities like food or deodorant. The lack of sufficient menstrual products puts incarcerated women at risk of infection. They are also subject to punishments for staining their uniforms and sexual abuse by guards.

Across the country, activists are working to change that. Formerly incarcerated women affected by these outrageous policies and their allies are pushing for bills to guarantee sufficient access to menstrual products for incarcerated people in a number of states, including Arizona, Maryland, Virginia, Nebraska, and Alabama. And the movement is gaining steam: in Arizona, HB 2222 has gained significant public attention from lawmakers, the public and the media. Alabama’s version of the bill, HB 363, is currently awaiting action in the legislature.

Feministing caught up with up with activists Joe Watson of the American Friends Service Committee of Arizona (AFSCAZ) and Vegas Longlois of Greater Birmingham Period (GBP) to talk about the campaigns in their states. Both Longlois and Watson have personal ties to incarcerated people in Arizona and Alabama. Watson was himself formerly incarcerated, and Longlois has a relative currently in prison. Both make clear that this fight goes beyond pads and tampons to encompass questions about the dignity and humanity of incarcerated people.

I asked Watson and Longlois to share their thoughts about the motivations behind these policies and the relationship between menstrual equity and other prison reform and abolition movements.  

Jess: Coverage of these policies often calls out male lawmakers’ ignorance about menstruation and the topic’s stigma. How else do you explain policies that limit menstrual product access in prisons?

Vegas Longlois: [Part of the problem is] America’s obsession with crime and punishment – the idea that suffering is somehow redemptive for people who we see as violating society’s strictures.

Joe Watson: [When he heard the testimony of formerly incarcerated Arizona women] Representative Jay Lawrence, the chair of the Regulatory Affairs Committee, said that his main objection to HB 2222 is that prisoners are liars. He said that the stories we are telling them couldn’t be believed. Another one of the committee members questioned whether or not prisoners could be trusted not to use [menstrual] products to escape. This policy is a matter of not accepting that people who fall into this prison system are human beings.

Jess: I was shocked by how expensive – and unaffordable – these products are to incarcerated people who are paid pennies an hour. Do you think profit plays a role in keeping these policies in place?

Longlois: This is one of many cost-cutting measures related to the spread of mass incarceration. We’re putting too many people in prisons and don’t have the money to take care of people in there. And for profit prisons have more lobbying power than incarcerated folks.

Watson: Privatization is not just companies that run prisons. Privatization includes people who run the phones, people who provide medical services, people who run the chow hall and make the food that prisoners eat every day, and companies that sell commissary which is where prisoners can buy additional boxes of feminine hygiene products.

Jess: On social media, people are using the hashtags #letitflow and #letthemgo to talk about these campaigns. How is the fight for menstrual equity related to movements to end money bail, decriminalize marijuana, or abolish prisons entirely?  

Watson: Change is gradual. This is a long game that we’re playing. Legislation like HB 2222 and things like [the movement to end] cash bail start a larger conversation among people who aren’t policymakers and lawmakers about the humanity of the people that we lock up… It gets them to question why we are locking up people in the first place if we are going to deny them such basic human rights.

In speaking with Vegas and Joe, I was struck by the way that the menstrual equity movement – and the opposition it faces from lawmakers – touches so many other issues: healthcare, prison privatization, and the stereotypes about prisoners as inherently untrustworthy and undeserving of basic care. HB 363 and HB 2222 aim to provide access to products that help menstruating people in prisons have safer periods without the risk of infection and to restore dignity that our prison system has taken away from them.

For those of us committed to ending the “American obsession with crime and punishment” that so defines our country’s past and present, menstrual equity is one place to start. So what can feminists do to help?

Arizona’s HB 2222 is currently stalled in the legislature after Representative Shope said he would leave the decision up to the Arizona Department of Corrections (the same Department of Corrections that’s been fined $600,000  for violating prisoners’ healthcare rights). AFSCAZ encourages Arizona residents to call their legislators and the Governor’s Office to demand action. You can also follow AFSCAZ here.

Alabama’s HB 363 has been reintroduced this year, and Longlois asks Alabamians to call their legislators and ask them to support the bill. Follow Greater Birmingham Period for updates and local actions.

Even if like me, you don’t live in either of these states, there is so much we can do. Our prison system not only makes people on the inside feel less human – it convinces those of us who are outside to see incarcerated people that way. To truly change our society, we must start with broaching the barriers of isolation and stigma. Get involved with a menstrual equity campaign in your state, or start one. Become a prison pen-pal. Give to groups that support formerly incarcerated community members in dealing with the trauma of prison. Advocate to keep people out of prison in the first place by opposing the school to prison pipelinemandatory minimums and police/ICE collaboration. Donate to community bail funds or download AppolitionDefend incarcerated sexual violence survivors. The menstrual equity movement shows us that there is no single solution to our prison system. But together, we can chip away at the beast from all angles.

During our conversation, Vegas reminded me: “This campaign is a foothold. Increasing awareness that this is a problem starts to make people question things about the system they always took for granted or never looked too deeply at.”  

The movement for menstrual equity helps us to question the dehumanizing logic at the very heart of our prison system. In doing so, we can start to imagine another world.  

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, LGBTQ person and cat lover living in Boston, MA. At Feministing, Jess writes about the intersection of state and interpersonal violence, LGBTQ communities and radical activism. Jess can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Jess is a first-gen college graduate, LGBTQ person and cat lover living in Boston, MA. Jess can usually be found on public transportation or the internet.

Read more about Jess

Join the Conversation