If you're an avid Orange Is the New Black binge-watcher, you've seen menstrual products sprinkled throughout prison life, often moonlighting as other items: maxi pads as cleaning supplies, hair-tie and pad shower shoes, tampons as hair curlers, etc. But in Season 4, Episode 5, the prison runs out of pads and tampons (the latter, normally sold at the commissary for $10/box). The shortage creates a black market, sending period products to the top of the "most valuable" list with a single tampon selling for as much as $25.
But real-life female prisoners in the U.S. aren't all that far off from the Litchfield ladies of OITNB. In the last few years, the inadequacy of menstrual care in U.S. prisons has been highlighted as a women's rights issue. For example, in June 2015, former inmate Chandra Bozelko wrote an article for The Guardian about the lack of access to adequate period products and how keeping them away from inmates was a disturbing power-play by guards and wardens. In April 2017, The New York Times reported on the spotty access to menstrual products and the fact that they were being used as bargaining chips in jails.
However, this month, the outlook changed. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued a memo on August 1 mandating that feminine hygiene products be available to all female inmates in federal institutions at no additional cost. And not just one-size-fits-all products; the memo requires that prisons stock tampons (regular and super size), maxi pads with wings (regular and super size), and regular panty liners.
While some local governments have made steps on their own—similar legislation was enacted in New York City in July 2016, requiring city prisons to provide female inmates with menstrual products—this new policy change affects federal prisons nationwide but does not impact local- or state-run facilities. So, this BOP memo doesn't mean 100 percent of women behind bars in the U.S. are covered when it comes to period care. The BOP currently oversees 187,186 federal inmates, including almost 13,000 women. Meanwhile, the total number of incarcerated women in the U.S. (including state and private facilities) is estimated at about 206,000, according to a report by Prison Policy Initiative published in November 2015. So while 13K female prisoners can now have non-miserable, non-messy periods, there are still a lot more women who might be making do with toilet paper and DIY tampons. (Speaking of DIY tampons, it's about time we took down the tampon tax.)
The good news? The BOP isn't the only org pushing for changes. Their memo comes just a month after Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill aimed at improving conditions for women in prisons, including regulations on menstrual products, shackling and solitary confinement for pregnant women, free phone calls, video messaging capabilities, and more contact with their families (including the ability to breastfeed their young children), among other things.
In response to the new federal policy, Booker said, in a statement to Quartz: "But a policy memo is just words on a piece of paper unless it's properly enforced. I'll be monitoring to ensure that BOP is implementing this new policy consistently at all federal prisons."
While this BOP policy change might be one small victory for the ongoing period revolution, it's an important one for imprisoned women in the U.S. Here's hoping for many more victories.