Having My Period in Prison Was Awful. In Texas, That May Finally Change.

When I was locked up, I often had to go without tampons or pads. A new law ensures that the 12,500 women still behind bars won’t have to.

<em>How was it that something so important always seemed so difficult to obtain?</em>
How was it that something so important always seemed so difficult to obtain? Wikimedia

When I was locked up, I often had to go without tampons or pads. A new law ensures that the 12,500 women still behind bars won’t have to.

<em>How was it that something so important always seemed so difficult to obtain?</em>
How was it that something so important always seemed so difficult to obtain? Wikimedia

“Does the commissary have any more tampons?”

My bunkie shook her head. “I already asked when I went by there.”

I panicked. “What are we gonna do? I’ve got six left, and I had to count them under my bed so no one would ask me for one. I’ll need them next week. I’m a terrible human being.”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, then that makes the two of us. I just lied to that new lady who asked if I had any pads.”

We sat in silence on our bunks sipping our coffee as as we watched the rest of the women in our dorm. “This is like one of those end-of-the-world movies, like when there’s shortages and people start hoarding,” I said. “We should call this the Summer of the Great Flood. Imagine the tagline, ‘And there will be blood.’” She choked on her coffee from both laughter and disgust.

It’s not as if we weren’t already accustomed to this problem. We usually had to compensate for the inadequate supply of provided feminine hygiene products at the Mountain View Unit by purchasing them through the commissary, but a lapse in contracts had made this necessity extremely scarce in the summer of 2011. Even the black market had dried up. I had to rely on my own stockpile, which was dwindling fast.

I’d already run a risk by keeping more than the allowed amount of 24 pads and 12 tampons. Compliance violations could mean major disciplinary trouble. I had witnessed the confiscation of 30 precious tampons during a cell search; afterward, the poor woman wasn’t allowed to use the phone for a month, so she couldn’t talk to her daughter. Still, I decided to take my chances, hiding my stash at work in the library behind a bookshelf.

There was no way I was going without again. I remember being in county jail with just half a roll of toilet paper to my name. I had to sit through court praying that my makeshift pad—a standard-issue sock—stayed in place. I never could make up my mind which would have been worse: the sock falling out in front of the courtroom, or being covered in blood.

How was it that something so important always seemed so difficult to obtain? Even in the best of times, when we ran out, guards would not give us more. There was simply nothing to give. Occasionally a sympathetic female guard would scavenge the unit looking for extra or simply confiscate someone else’s supply in order to give you a few, but favors were not a viable solution.

That summer, I felt my only recourse was doing the only thing I knew to do when frustrated: I wrote. I wrote every prison official remotely related to purchasing these items. I mailed letters to organizations such as the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. I wrote grievances. I tried to encourage others to join me in my campaigning, to no avail. It was accepted that since it had always been that way, that was the way it was. The girl I played basketball with at rec resigned herself to cancel our one-on-one sessions when she started her period. I would see her through the window, sitting on the bench in the dayroom. She told me on her heaviest days she would just sit for hours. She needed her pads for her work day when she would be mowing grass. “I can’t waste them on just basketball.”

After my release earlier this year, I was surprised to discover that recent legislation, effective this September, addressed the issue of feminine hygiene products for female prisoners. A slew of dignity bills, ranging from the lack of educational opportunities for women in prison to the cruel treatment of pregnant prisoners, had passed with bipartisan support. Women are the fastest-growing population behind bars nationwide, and Texas locks up more women—about 12,500—than any other state. Yet women’s needs are still neglected. A 2018 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition amplified the voices of formerly incarcerated women and put these long-neglected concerns before the public and our elected officials. More than half the women surveyed said they didn’t have reliable access to tampons or pads.

What may seem like a small, common-sense victory is monumental to women in our criminal justice system. It goes far beyond just making sure they have enough tampons and pads. They have a little more dignity now—and hope that just because something has always been a certain way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. It turns out that most people think there’s something wrong and undignified about me having to resort to a sock.

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Jennifer Toon is a formerly incarcerated criminal justice advocate and freelance writer. She lives in East Texas.


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