tampon trade in prisons
Women's Health and Wellness

How the #MeToo Movement Ended a Prison’s Illegal Tampon Trade

2018 might technically be the year of the dog, but it’s been looking more like the year of the cat.

Why? Because pussies across America have been grabbing back. (Harsh language, I know—but the president said it first!)

In part sparked by a barrage of sexist statements coming from our top government official himself, a new wave of feminism is gaining ground in America. In 2017, a crowd of nearly one million descended upon Washington, DC to protest the unjust treatment of women and fight for gender equality. They were joined by over four million others in different cities across the country, and three million others across the globe.

Later in the year, the #MeToo movement skyrocketed to international fame after dozens of women accused now-disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Created by activist Tarana Burke in 2006 as a way for female victims to find solidarity together, the #MeToo movement has since brought sexual assault and other women’s rights issues to center stage.

As a result of this increased attention on women’s issues, officials have been provoked to take action in situations where turning a blind eye had previously been status quo.

In April of 2018, Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of indecent assault after drugging and sexually assaulting a fellow Temple University alumna and employee in 2004. The next month, Harvey Weinstein was arrested on rape charges with a list of assault allegations dating back to the 1980s.

Experts have credited the #MeToo movement with creating a cultural shift towards accountability, and sexual assault is just one of the issues to which that sense of accountability applies. One of the more unexpected causes benefited by the movement is #FreeTheTampons, a push to make feminine hygiene products affordable and accessible for all women.

For the perfect example of how critical this need for accessible tampons is, one need not look further than the American prison system.

In many penitentiaries, female inmates are provided with only twelve pads each month. If they require additional pads or wish to use tampons, they must purchase them at commissary.

With prison jobs paying as little as fifteen cents an hour, saving up enough for a single box can take weeks, leading inmates to resort to DIY fixes like bunched up toilet paper.

The resulting health risks—not to mention humiliation—of this shortage are painfully apparent. One inmate tells the story of using a make-shift tampon and later contracting toxic shock syndrome (TSS), requiring an emergency hysterectomy. In other cases, inmates barter for tampons using food, cigarettes, contraband drugs, and whatever other forms of currency are available.

Many inmates report having to beg for tampons or pads after power-hungry guards withhold them. Bloodstained pants are a common occurrence when such attempts are unsuccessful.

Worse than the ways in which prisoners attempt to get necessary menstrual products are the punishments that can come from their pursuit. Trading contraband, “bothering” guards, and even bloodstained pants can be written up as conduct violations.

Prison activists had been protesting these injustices for years, but their efforts fell on mostly deaf ears. However, when the #MeToo movement started making noise, officials everywhere finally started to listen.

In January of 2018, Arizona tripled the number of pads made available to inmates. In the same month, Nebraska officials announced that pads and tampons would be provided to inmates for free, with only brand-name products requiring purchase. In March, the Maryland legislature passed a law that, if put into action, will allow free access to menstrual products. Virginia, Alabama, and Connecticut have all made moves towards similar legislation, meaning inmates in all of these states will be able to get more of the products that they need without having to take matters into their own hands.

For the activists behind the push to improve access to menstrual products in prisons, the role of the #MeToo movement is a no-brainer.

As reported by the Associated Press, the ACLU’s National Prison Project Deputy Director Amy Fettig believes this push for better access is part of a broader women’s rights dialogue that didn’t exist just half a decade ago.

“I think it’s also because of the larger #MeToo movement and awareness about women’s status in this country,” she says, adding that though promising, the push for equal access to menstrual products in prisons is far from over.

Every state needs to consider protecting its women behind bars in a more robust manner, and certainly ensuring that health and dignity are not sacrificed at the prison door.”

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