A bloody nightmare: periods in prison

‘You cannot use periods to punish women’: Sophie Latham explores how menstruation pushes people even further down the social hierarchy within prisons.

Working in collaboration with the Howard League, this week’s articles will focus on the lives of women in prisons.

Over three and a half billion people menstruate every month. Six hundred thousand of those menstruate behind bars.

Access to tampons and sanitary pads is extremely limited within the walls of a prison. Every day, women are forced to bleed through their prison uniforms and beg guards for extra supplies. Should human dignity also be stripped from inmates, on top of their liberty?

The facts are shocking; in some prisons, each two-person cell receives five pads per week to split. An average menstrual cycle lasts five days to a week, meaning prisoners have to wear the same pad for several days. Owing to the proximity of confinement, women’s cycles can sync which leads to a toxic putrid environment. Appallingly, prison officials ignore complaints about the odour leaving prisoners to live in degrading conditions. The poor quality of pads, a form of cost-cutting, means the adhesive barely sticks to underwear and often slips out. Some women tape several pads together simply to make them hold. Tampons are ‘essentially waterproof’ and used instead as cleaning supplies.

Going further than financial cutbacks, these restrictions emphasise the powerlessness of inmates; not only do prisons control their everyday lives, but they also control their hygiene and self-esteem. The humiliation of pleading for sanitary supplies from uncaring male prison officers reinforces their helplessness. Moreover, the lack of supplies creates power-struggles and tensions between inmates who often pressure newcomers to hand over their hygiene products.

Those lucky enough to be able to afford sanitary products from the commissary can expect to wait 2 weeks for a delivery.  Some prisons even privatise their commissaries, leading to inflated prices that make prisoners have to choose between pads and other essentials such as toothpaste and soap. The less fortunate inmates who cannot afford to ‘indulge’ in basic hygiene on their £1/day pay are left with inadequate sanitary supplies and stained clothes. These disproportionate prices are also due to the fact that sanitary products are classed as ‘luxury’ items in terms of taxation. There is, in fact, nothing luxurious about menstruation.

The utter uncleanliness of forcing people to return to an eighteenth century state of living should be enough to force the government to reform the criminal justice system, but unfortunately ‘money talks’ and budget cuts mean that humane conditions are not regarded as necessary. Over the duration of the Coalition here in the UK, tight budgets were further cut by 24 per cent, the equivalent of £900 million. The innate injustice of rendering the voiceless even more defenceless is inexcusable, especially as prisoners cannot use the ballot box to vote against unfair policies. Since the recession, women-specific services and especially feminine hygiene products have been hit the hardest by these cutbacks.

This should not be the case. It is widely known that there are many reusable solutions that could cut on costs without cutting vital corners. Mooncups for example are silicone mouldable cups that can be reused for several years. A more expensive option is THINX underwear, absorbent undergarments that negate the need for pads and tampons. These solutions have the added bonus of being environmentally friendly as well as helping with prisoner hygiene and comfort. Although the initial investment would be higher, prisons could make a long term saving compared to purchasing millions of inadequate disposable pads and tampons.

Some may claim that the essence of prisons is to punish, and therefore no efforts should be made to maintain the basic human dignity of their residents. However, access to sanitary pads and tampons is not a luxury. You cannot use periods to punish women, in the same way that you cannot withhold loo paper or medical attention from inmates. Having no other option than sitting in your own blood has to be a form of torture, if not utterly degrading treatment. It is outrageous to return to such a backwards way of thinking in a society that prides itself on its respect for human rights.

Illustration by Kate Dickinson

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