Products needed to assist with menstruation are a necessary part of any menstruator’s health. Being placed in prison does not stop a person from needing access to pads or tampons, yet the State of New York places strong restrictions on access to these products despite known concerns and issues with these restrictions. For as long as people are placed in prison, there are important duties the State undertakes to ensure health and dignity. Providing adequate responses to menstruation is one of these duties. As we discuss this issue more, remember that failure to respond to menstruation is an issue of sexism and misogyny, not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.
Each month, individuals held at Taconic, Bedford Hills, and Albion Correctional Facilities (the three “women’s” facilities in New York State) receive a stipend of 24 sanitary pads. According to our clients, the pads are so thin that people tend to wear multiple pads at a time. According to a survey done by the Women in Prison project of the Correctional Association, over half of all people in women’s prisons found these supplies to be insufficient and needed to supplement their stipend. In order to receive additional pads for free, individuals must request a medical permit. Tying the need for menstrual products to a medical diagnosis creates a humiliating and degrading process for many individuals, including transgender men and transmasculine people held in the prisons.
There is no standard policy for medical permits for additional menstrual health care products. Policies differ widely at each facility but are united in their underlying humiliation. Much of the public information available on menstrual health in NYS prisons can be found in “Reproductive Injustice”, a report published by the Women in Prison Project of the Correctional Association of New York. According to the report, some medical staff at Taconic stated that only individuals with a diagnosis of anemia would be eligible for a permit for additional pads. According to other medical staff, any individual who needs more can receive the additional pads if they undergo blood tests, pelvic exams, and cancer screenings first. Bayview (a facility closed in 2010) had a policy that an individual must bring in all of the used pads to show they were not lying before being issued a medical pass.
Individuals without access to such a permit buy additional pads from commissary or rely on packages from loved ones. To read more about the package crisis within DOCCS facilities, please go to the Packaging Love website. Commissary costs are often outrageous given the low wages earned by people in prison. According to “Reproductive Injustice”, “It costs 12 cents for each tampon at Bedford’s commissary, 17 cents at Albion and 24 cents at Taconic. Pads are also expensive costing 22 cents at Albion and 21 cents at Taconic. Bedford only sells “panty liners”, which are thinner and less absorbent than pads, for 67 cents per box.” The report notes the disparity between average prison wages and the cost of tampons; the common prison wage of 17 cents an hour translates to a weeks’ wages to buy a single 20-pack box of tampons at Taconic.
Buying additional products is impossible if an individual does not or cannot work. Many of SRLP’s transgender male or transmasculine clients cannot participate in work: they report to us that facility staff find them “threatening”, worry that they are “sexually aggressive”, and often find themselves on work waitlists due to these misperceptions of their gender expression. This is particularly true for our clients who are men of color, especially Black trans men. Of the trans men SRLP has represented in the past 3 years, every Black trans man has spent significant times in solitary confinement while their white counterparts have spent their entire stays in general population. You can read more about the inherent racism in New York State’s solitary practices here and more about how to participate in the movement to end solitary here.
While in solitary, Bedford has a policy of only five pads per person, while Taconic only provides two pads per person. According to the report, this is justified as part of the “general restrictions on property” for people in solitary confinement. Individuals in solitary may request additional pads, but this is done through putting in a request with correctional officers. Individuals in solitary cannot buy additional pads or receive additional supplies from loved ones on the outside.
Whether in solitary or general population, the act of requesting menstrual health products from DOCCS staff – medical or correctional officers – is a humiliating experience for our clients. The men we represent are already denied their gender identity on a regular basis. Our clients experience continual refusal by correctional officiers to be referred to with the rights names or pronouns, continual refusal to have their gender identity respected, and purnishment for any expression of masculinity. Menstrual health products are no more gendered than toilet paper or other necessities of daily living, yet we continue to live in a world where many men are shamed for the needs of their body, and everyone from other incarcerated people to DOCCS staff use the need for menstrual health products to reify shameful messages about the body and transphobic tropes. No person who needs to use menstrual health products should have to rely on another individual to access them.
In order to address this widespread concern, SRLP continues to support a legislative bill known as S.6176. This bill was introduced in May 2017 to provide menstrual health products for free to people held in New York State women’s prisons. The bill did not pass the last session, but SRLP looks forward to assisting in promoting the bill in the next session. The full text of the proposed bill as it last appeared can be read here.