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Why I'm Fighting for Menstrual Equity in Prison

Menstrual pads
Access to tampons and pads for incarcerated people is a right, not a privilege. No one should have to beg for what they need to manage their period.
Menstrual pads
Kimberly Haven,
Coalition Coordinator,
Reproductive Justice Inside, Pro-Choice Maryland
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November 8, 2019

My name is Kimberly Haven. I am an activist, an advocate, and I have also been referred to as the “tampon queen.” I got this moniker because, while I was incarcerated, I learned how to make my own tampons out of the subpar menstrual products I was “given” while incarcerated. 

For those who do not have firsthand experience with it, incarcerated women are typically provided with a very limited number of subpar products you would never buy outside of the carceral system. Access to pads and / or tampons is not a given—they are closely restricted and sometimes run out, leaving women without any solutions except to beg for more from the guards. More standard pads and tampons are available in the commissary, but you have to pay for them, which is often out of reach for many incarcerated women. Thirty-eight states have no law requiring the provision of menstrual products to incarcerated people.

Along with many of the women I was incarcerated with, I used my own homemade products rather than beg for more from an unconcerned correctional officer or risk bleeding through my clothes. Flash forward to my return home: as a result of my creativity to survive with some modicum of dignity, I ended up needing a hysterectomy.  My experience is not unique, but I offer it as a reason why the new Menstrual Equity issue brief  — designed with input from me and other women who have been impacted by the system— is critical to ensuring menstrual equity for all. I use my experience to make sure that the people we incarcerate in women’s facilities are also provided equity and, more importantly, dignity.

Despite being the fastest growing incarcerated population, women and girls are correctional afterthoughts.  We as a society treat them no differently than men. There is no dignity, no humanity, no compassion in a system that makes a person have to beg, borrow, or even make her own basic hygiene items. Pads and tampons have become weaponized. They are withheld in order to get certain behavior, and they are doled out in whatever amounts and at the convenience of correctional staff (when they are distributed at all). I know women who made products out of shreds of clothes or stuffing from inside their state-issued mattresses. The health risks that people take to provide for themselves the most basic of products are incalculable. From toxic shock, to infection, to infertility, it is a game of Russian roulette and not a price that anyone should have to pay.

I have seen women call their families and tell them not to come – I have seen women turn down visits from their attorneys when they are menstruating. Why? Because you are not allowed to have personal property when going on the visits. If you go to your visit, you are stripped naked and made to spread your butt cheeks, squat and cough. You strip and there is a bloody pad – afterwards no woman is going to want to put that back against her body. Once your visit is over, you would then have to walk back to your housing unit or job/school assignment and risk bleeding through your clothes. The humiliation of either situation is the very reality that plays out in our prisons and jails.

Incarcerated people deserve no less than dignity when it comes to managing a normal bodily function.  States and local jurisdictions must be required to provide essentials to those in their “care, custody and control.” Free and accessible access to menstrual products is simply something that must be provided. 

It is unfathomable to me that, in 2019, we even have to have this conversation and that sadly we must use legislation to ensure that those we incarcerate have what they need, in the quantity they need and that no one has to make their own tampons.

We passed Menstrual Equity legislation in Maryland in 2018 and it went into effect on October 1st of that year. One year later, we still have problems. People are still not getting what they need; they still receive subpar products that they are forced to make into usable ones. Worse, when good legislation is passed, resentful leadership too often weaponizes it, replacing the quality products in the commissary with the subpar ones being given freely to incarcerated people. We need to start thinking about what happens to people incarcerated in women’s facilities and demand action and accountability.

I am now the Coalition Coordinator for Reproductive Justice Inside, and I no longer accept being a “tampon queen” – now I am the “tampon bitch” as I continue to fight for menstrual equity and dignity for all.

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