Female inmates at the state prison in Jessup, Maryland — the state’s only women’s prison — say getting feminine hygiene products, like pads and tampons, while they’re incarcerated can be challenging, sometimes even impossible.
“On the first of the month, when they're supposed to get the supplies, they will go through and in every cell they will open the door, they will throw in a couple of rolls of toilet paper and a couple of pads,” said Baltimore resident Kimberly Haven, who was released from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in 2015.
But there are also times when the prison runs out and that monthly delivery doesn’t come, said Haven, now an activist on criminal justice issues.
When women need more than they get, they can ask an officer for more, she said, but for one reason or another — maybe the prison is short on supply or maybe the officer doesn’t want to help — they may not get the pads they ask for.
Women who have enough money in their commissary accounts can also buy tampons or pads, but that usually requires financial help from friends and family outside the prison. Several former inmates said that while items like soap and deodorant are affordable for someone who has a job in the prison, pads and tampons are pricey.
A bill before the General Assembly requires the manager of a state or local correctional facility to make sure the facility has a sufficient supply of feminine hygiene products, to give the products to inmates at no cost when they need them, and to keep written policies and records on the subject. The Maryland Commission on Correctional Standards will have to review each facility’s policy and records on a regular basis.
The goal is equal treatment for female inmates, said Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.
“Women’s products and hygiene products are generally not given the attention that they need in these correctional facilities, like what they have for men,” she said.
And when female inmates can’t get what they need, they get creative.
“I would take these sanitary pads that they do give — which have the absorbency of putting a Band-Aid on an amputated limb — and I would rip them apart, and I would take that fluffy little cotton that flies everywhere. And I would use the lining of it. And I would roll my own tampons,” Haven said.
Qiana Johnson, who lives in Clinton, served her time after Haven did, but she described a similar experience.
“We had shop rags that are sweatpants material. Women would use that to collect their blood,” said Johnson, who was released from the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in August. “They would make tampons out of the mattress — out of the stuffing that's inside of the mattress.”
Health experts warn that using these kinds of improvised devices, or using a tampon or pad for longer than advised, can cause infections or other serious health problems.
But it would be worse to have blood leak, Haven said. Women even turn down visits with their families and attorneys when they have their period.
“After every visit you have to strip, squat and cough,” Haven said. “When you squat and cough and strip and you pull your underwear down and you've got a bloody pad there, that's embarrassing and demeaning, and you can't walk back with nothing because then you run the risk of bleeding through your clothes.”
During a hearing on the bill Tuesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, committee member Anthony Muse, a Prince George’s County Democrat, told advocates that the majority of the committee already supports the measure.
“It doesn’t appear to be an uphill journey,” he said.
The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services declined to be interviewed for this story. In emails, spokesman Gerard Shields said the department changed its policy last July. Women at the state prison in Jessup now get 48 pads per month, he said, and those who need more can request them.
The department also declined to take a position on the new legislation. Shields said the legislation is more relevant for county jails than the state correctional facilities.
“We are more than adequately providing what the women need,” he wrote.
But inmates interviewed for this story who were released after the change said they don’t recall getting an increased supply of pads.