The United States relies more heavily on imprisonment than any country in the world, with the War on Drugs the major driving force behind high incarceration rates. While common perception paints young men as the greatest victims of the drug war, conspiracy laws aimed at drug kingpins often result in women facing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for failure to inform on partners involved in drug sales. More than 2/3 of women currently serving time in federal penitentiaries are in prison for non-violent drug offenses.
Within the whole of the U.S. correction system, there were over 100,000 women serving time in state and federal penitentiaries in 2012. No matter their crime, women in prison face unique challenges, as the comparatively small number of female versus male prisoners results in a prison system run by and designed for men. The specific health and hygiene needs of women are overlooked and ignored when women are incarcerated, causing untold suffering.
How Women Suffer from Failures To Consider Feminine Hygiene
As a weekly visitor to imprisoned men and women, observing and hearing about deplorable prison conditions is a routine part of work as a criminal defense lawyer. The United States is the only democracy worldwide with no independent board or other outside authority monitoring conditions in prisons or enforcing basic minimum health and safety standards. The failure to fully respect the human rights- and the humanity- of prisoners has resulted in damaging solitary confinement, overcrowding, violence, and sexual abuse- all of which pose grave risks to the physical and mental health of prisoners.
Amidst the atrocities of the U.S. prison system, issues of feminine hygiene failures may seem trivial. The unwillingness to ensure a female prisoner’s basic needs are met, however, is not trivial to the women who experience humiliation and damage to already fragile self-esteem. A 2008 report from the UN’s independent expert on torture warned women may be more affected by adverse conditions during incarceration than men; a problem compounded by the fact 73 percent of female inmates have mental health problems compared with 55 percent of males in prison.
Lack of space and privacy are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conditions which hit women harder. While overcrowding and constant observation are hallmarks of life in prison affecting both incarcerated men and women, many women are forced to live in conditions where showering and bathroom use take place under the watchful eye of male guards (around 40 percent of guards in female prisoners are male). With nearly eight in 10 women in prison reporting they have been victims of sexual abuse, being in a full or partial state of undress around male guards can be triggering for these vulnerable women prisoners.
A more fundamental failure to provide for the unique needs of women centers around limited access to sanitary products including tampons and maxi pads. Women are often provided with a limited number of maxi pads, and the feminine hygiene supplies are often of poor quality and fail to provide adequate protection. Women prisoners can purchase additional feminine hygiene supplies, but incarcerated females are less likely than males to have outside financial support and they do not earn enough from in-prison jobs to pay for basic necessities like deodorant, toothpaste or shampoo. Even when they have the funds, prison commissaries often have pads and tampons in short supply.
Women without access to sanitary equipment may be forced to improvise using rags and toilet paper, which can cause infection and which are not effective. Stains on clothing are dehumanizing, and are an outward express of the helplessness which women prisoners experience as a routine part of their daily lives. The ACLU actually filed a lawsuit on behalf of female prisoners in Michigan prisoners claiming their civil rights were being violated by the scarcity of pads and tampons. This lawsuit and the adverse conditions faced by women are not trivial- women are suffering grave harm because matters of feminine hygiene are not taken seriously.
Men dominate positions of authority within the criminal justice system; in 2014, 66 percent of lawyers were men and 73.9 percent of federal and state judgeships were held by men. No woman wants to discuss with her male attorney that she cannot access feminine hygiene products, and no woman wants to come before a male judge and explain the humiliation of having stained clothing from lack of access to pads or tampons. Yet, this is exactly the position women are being forced into in the U.S. justice system today.
Among the many steps we must take towards gender equality and humane treatment of prisoners is to ensure the women our country incarcerates have access to the most basic yet fundamental feminine products they need.