Menstruating While Incarcerated
Women’s bodies are different from men’s—this is not a controversial statement—and require different forms of care and maintenance. We know this, yet we still struggle to identify and rectify the ways in which women are expected to shoulder the burden of not having the societal default of male physiology. Some of these inequities should be glaringly obvious, except that we also consider it distasteful to discuss them openly, so vulnerable women are left to suffer. After all, have you ever thought about the difficulties of menstruating while incarcerated?
Many people are shocked when I ask them this question. There is an assumption that prisons must have some way of handling this, yet this assumption is never based on any evidence. In a system such as the U.S. prison complex where we frequently hear stories of inmates dealing with poor quality healthcare, why would we think anyone would put any emphasis on menstrual care? Even for the general U.S. population menstrual products are not considered essential items, and are therefore not exempt from sales tax (similar to the VAT) on luxury items or covered by government assistance programs like food stamps or Medicaid.
With both periods and incarcerated women, out of sight is out of mind. Incarcerated women have largely been ignored because they do not conform to the expectation of standard prisoners, a.k.a. men. Advocates have worked tirelessly in relatively recent history to demand more attention for incarcerated women and their needs and this has generally resulted in better care and a growing understanding that treating incarcerated women exactly the same as incarcerated men does not work. Searching with the University of Edinburgh’s DiscoverEd library tool will bring up over 300,000 hits for items including the terms “women”, “prison”, and “health.” Yet almost none of the discussions of incarcerated women, even those specifically focusing on gynaecological care, mention menstruation. There is a deep-seated stigma against discussing periods openly or even acknowledging them, as anyone who has felt compelled to hide their menstrual product on the way to the restroom can confirm. If we search the library for anything that also includes the word “menstruation,” the search drops to around 2,000 hits, with the majority being unrelated to prisons or focused on developing nations.
Part of the answer to this quandary is that men are overwhelmingly the ones making decisions about women’s healthcare, especially in prison, and they generally forget to account for menstruation despite knowing it is a biological reality for roughly half the world population. But the omission by even advocates and dedicated researchers who have spent their lives trying to better conditions for women in U.S. prisons not only shows how uncomfortable we are talking about periods but also how we like to think of this kind of problem as something that only happens in developing countries. This is untrue, as more than one in five women in the U.S. have reported struggling to pay for menstrual products every month. For women in prison, there is a growing awareness that access is an issue after the ACLU found problems in Alabama, California, Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan and other issues have been found in places like Connecticut, Missouri, and New York.
This is why my research focuses on interviewing women who have been released from incarceration in the U.S. within the past ten years, as well as the experts who work closely with them. I have also set up an online anonymous survey for those women who can’t participate in a remote interview or who aren’t comfortable talking to a stranger about such personal topics. I want to know the impact of incarceration on these women through the lens of menstruation, and how access to menstrual products affects their sense of self and self-worth. I want to know what the different approaches are to handling this issue in prisons and how these different approaches lead to different experiences. And I want to use the information I get from respondents to place menstruation within the framework of gender-responsive treatment—if we’re committed to caring for women and their unique mental and emotional needs, we should also be committed to caring for their unique biological needs.
Through my work, I have already created the only compendium of information on menstrual policy for incarcerated women in the U.S. at The Prison Flow Project website. My hope is that this will be a useful tool for women, their loved ones, and advocates looking for information, and that the conversations I have with these women and the experts who work with them encourages further research in this critical area.
Miriam Vishniac (she/her/hers) is a second-year doctoral student in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh from Washington, D.C., U.S.A. She received her B.A. in Biochemistry from Oberlin College in 2010 and her Master of Public Policy with a concentration in Civil Rights from George Washington University in 2018, and uses her multidisciplinary background to find new approaches and perspectives on problems involving gender inequality, racial injustice, and menstrual activism.
Miriam will be participating in ‘The Price of Periods: Prisons, Poverty, Politics’, an event run jointly by genderED and the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH). The event will run on the 22nd of November 2021 17:00-18:00 GMT as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science. For more information on the event, and to reserve tickets, click here.