WMC News & Features

Male Arizona legislators stuck in the Dark Ages as women advocate for free prison sanitary products

As women used words like “menstruation” and “heavy flow” while describing the humiliating and degrading experience of having insufficient sanitary products in prison, the nine, all-male members of the Arizona legislature’s Committee on Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs bristled and shifted in their seats.  

Among those who spoke on Monday was a female Arizona state representative who was advocating for the passage of a bill that would give state prisoners free, unlimited access to feminine hygiene products.  

“I can’t imagine something more uncomfortable than not having the menstrual products you need for your period,” Rep. Athena Salman, who sponsored the bill, told the committee. “So my heart goes out to these women.”  

The men, however, seemed less than eager to hear about the realities of menstruation in prison, according to local Arizona radio station KJZZ, even as woman after woman spoke out in favor of the legislation. “I’m almost sorry I heard the bill,” said and Committee Chairman, Rep. Jay Lawrence. “I didn’t expect to hear ‘pads’ and ‘tampons’ and the problems of periods.”  

Among the indignities female inmates suffer is the denial of access to sufficient menstrual products. (Officer Bimblebury)

If passed, Arizona House Bill 2222 would allocate $80,000 to the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) each year so that women locked up in the state could have free and unlimited access to sanitary products. Currently, Arizona prisoners are given only 12 pads each month to manage their menstrual cycle. Additional pads (or tampons) must be purchased on the prisoner’s own dime.  

Inadequate access to tampons and pads is an issue for incarcerated women around the country, as former prisoner Chandra Bozelko described in a 2015 opinion piece for The Guardian. The issue has even resulted in litigation. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued Muskegon County, alleging a range of constitutional violations and inhumane conditions, including insufficient access to sanitary products.  

Within institutions run by the Arizona Department of Corrections, Salman said, a 16-count of Always, ultra-thin, long pads cost about $3.20. Yet according to the Prison Policy Initiative, Arizona prisoners are paid as little as $0.15 cents/hour—meaning that the cost of sanitary products is exorbitant for women who don’t have funds from before their incarceration or support from the outside. 

Having such limited access to menstrual products is humiliating and degrading, formerly incarcerated women and advocates said in their statements to the committee, according to KJZZ. “Being there and going through this is untenable and unconscionable,” said Sue Ellen Allen, who was formerly locked up but now runs a prison reform group called Reinventing Reentry. “And it affects you for the long term.”  

Angela Ashworth, who is currently incarcerated, wrote to KJZZ to share her thoughts. “You start to feel worthless if you didn’t already,” she said about the lack of sanitary products.  

It’s not only the self-worth of incarcerated women that is at issue. A nurse in the audience at the committee hearing, who has treated incarcerated women, told KJZZ that she’d met prisoners who would twist multiple maxi pads together to make tampons out of them. That puts prisoners at risk of bacterial infections and toxic shock syndrome, she said.  

Arizona House Bill 2222 passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, but as of yet it is unclear if the legislation will be called to the floor for a full vote. Matthew Specht, director of communications for the Arizona House of Representatives majority staff, told KJZZ that House Speaker J.D. Mesnard isn’t ready to comment on the bill.  

Some jurisdictions have already implemented the changes proposed in Arizona. This summer, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced it would be making sanitary products available to women free of charge.  

More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Health, Politics
More articles by Tag: prison



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.