powelli / CC BY-ND 2.0

On Tuesday, Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which seeks to address the mistreatment of female prisoners. The measure, if passed, would codify the provision of basic needs such as free tampons and sanitary pads, a ban on shackling pregnant women or putting them in solitary confinement, increasing visitation rights for incarcerated mothers, and more.

The Huffington Post reports that the main motivation of the bill is to make it easier for women to maintain family ties while in prison. It requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to take into account the location of children when deciding where to place an inmate and to create policies, such as allowing physical interaction during visitation and not charging for phone calls, that make it easier for inmates to communicate with their families. The report continues:

Men make up the bulk of America’s imprisoned population, but the number of women behind bars has soared over the past few decades to more than 200,000 as of 2014, and women are now the fastest growing segment. (Compared internationally, the U.S. incarcerates women at a higher rate than every country but Thailand).

The legislation would affect the nearly 12,695 women in federal prisons — almost 60 percent of whom were convicted on drug offenses — but not those in state prisons and local jails, where the majority of women are held.

Given that most incarcerated women in the prison system are mothers, and that women are the fastest growing segment of the American prison population, the bill would take a step toward solving the endless ills they face. As Warren told Rolling Stone, “The notion that a woman should have to take the tiny little bit of resources she has on her commissary card, and choose between sanitary products and the cost of a phone call home to wish her children goodnight, is just wrong.”

Nicholas Kristof, in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, highlighted the problematic power dynamic involved in denying women their basic sanitary needs:

The proposal seems so sensible – and the alternative so inhumane – that one might wonder why it hasn’t been raised as a legislative priority before. … What none of these proposals regarding menstruation fully addresses, though, is the reality that the availability of sanitary products isn’t simply a matter of budget lines and purchasing orders. It has little to do with stock, supply, or actual need.

Rather, it has everything to do with power.

In correction facilities across the country, from county jails to federal penitentiaries, the varied ways in which menstruating prisoners are disregarded or disrespected is staggering. When access to basic hygiene supplies is withheld, it is often the direct result of an abusive culture – one that many facilities tolerate and few laws can adequately address.

Kristof went on to recall a notorious incident in court that shed light on the horrifying conditions incarcerated women endure:

In 2016, a Kentucky judge was stunned to find a defendant appear in court for arraignment wearing no pants and menstruating. She explained that correctional officers refused to give her pads or a change of clothes when she told them she had her period, despite repeated requests. Footage from the courtroom went viral – an intense scene in which the outraged judge called the jail staff from the bench, demanding an explanation and shouting to the courtroom, “Am I in the Twilight Zone? What is happening here?”

The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Kamala Harris and Dick Durbin, and has historical precedent: New York City passed a similar law last summer; Colorado mandated funding to provide free feminine hygiene products in its prisons; and Los Angeles County has done the same in its juvenile detention centers. Hopefully, more local jurisdictions, where most incarcerated women are held, will follow suit.

–Posted by Emily Wells

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