Menstrual Inequality and the United States Prison System

By Ava Rognlien 

Incarcerated menstruators are allotted five pads for two cellmates per period (1). There are no laws in place requiring that incarcerated people have access to menstrual products in thirty-eight states (2), but only twelve states and the District of Columbia have mandated that period products are free in all state correctional facilities (1). The 2019 Period Equity ACLU report uncovered "A Department of Justice investigation found that correctional officers at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama coerced incarcerated people to have sex with them in exchange for access to period products” (1). 

 Founder and Executive Director of The Ladies of Hope Ministries and formerly incarcerated, Topeka K. Sam shared her experience during an interview on the Pandora’s Box podcast, a documentary and podcast aimed at menstrual equality. During her time in prison, she was given allotted pads each month thus she said “Pads were being used as kind of bartering systems a lot of times with the guards, male guards very often” (3). Another way to receive more period products was to buy them, but the products are expensive, and incarcerated people can barely make enough to afford them. For example, tampons cost $6.99 for 10 in the San Mateo County Jail in California (4). 

Once Sam was released from prison, she began the movement to end the inhumane treatment of incarcerated women.  

“I knew that there were so many other sisters that didn't have the resources to get what they needed. They didn't have the strength to fight. I knew that I needed to do something about it. And when I came home, started organizing and speaking to other formerly incarcerated women, they were saying the same things. How can something that is part of our makeup, our humanity - why would we have to quantify cycles, have to purchase menstrual products in a system that's already deemed and already built to be inhumane?” (3).  

As I've mentioned in prior blog posts, states are working to pass bills that mandate free period products in schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. These bills must include all prisons and correctional facilities for them to successfully address period poverty and menstrual inequality. On the federal level, The Menstrual Equity for All Act was introduced by Representative Grace Meng, and the bill ensures that federal funding would go to provide free period products in every correctional facility (1). Learn more about federal action here. 

This excerpt written by Kimberly Haven, director of the nonprofit Reproductive Justice Inside and was formerly incarcerated, reflected on the cruel treatment of incarcerated menstruators.  

“I have seen women call their families and tell them not to come – I have seen women turn down visits from their attorneys when they are menstruating. Why? Because you are not allowed to have personal property when going on the visits. If you go on your visit, you are stripped naked and made to spread your butt cheeks, squat and cough. You strip and there is a bloody pad – afterwards no woman is going to want to put that back against her body. Once your visit is over, you would then have to walk back to your housing unit or job/school assignment and risk bleeding through your clothes. The humiliation of either situation is the very reality that plays out in our prisons and jails” (5). 

The fight for menstrual equality is far from over, and below are a few ways to help fight menstrual inequality for incarcerated menstruators.  


Listen to: 

Periods in Prison: Dignity for Incarcerated Women with Topeka K. Sam from Pandora’s Box Lifting the Lid on Menstruation by Pandora’s Box 

A podcast focusing on Sam’s experience in prison and the challenges in attaining period products.  


Pandora’s Box 

From formerly incarcerated women to those living in poverty, Pandora's Box elevates the voices of those who are often ignored or forgotten. 



This document is developed by Boondh and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to assist state prison departments in ensuring menstrual health standards in prisons for women prisoners and women prison staff. Apart from the prison department, the State Government and the High Court also need to ensure that basic minimum standards are complied with during detention of women in all police stations and district court lock-ups in the state.


Take Action 

If you are based in MA

  • Join the Massachusetts Menstrual Equity Coalition to help with local and community-led action. You can also urge your elected officials to sign the I AM BILL which would provide access to free menstrual products to all menstruating individuals in schools, shelters & prisons. Learn more here
  • Join the coalition here to take further action. 

If you are based outside of Massachusetts: 

  1. Contact your State Representative and Senator to ask them to support the bills that ensure statewide free period products in prisons. 
  2. Write about menstrual inequality in your local newspaper, blog, social media, etc. The more people that know about this injustice, the more people that will get behind stopping it.
  3. Learn about what local organizations and nonprofits are doing to ensure better access to menstruators in correctional facilities, and get involved. 





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