Arizona Has Made It Nearly Impossible to Access Hygiene Products if You’re Incarcerated

Arizona House Bill 2222, menstrual equity legislation that many have referred to as “the tampon bill,” was introduced to the all-male committee on Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs on February 5. Passage of the bill would give women in Arizona’s only female prison, Perryville, access to unlimited feminine hygiene products. Current Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) policy provides women only 12 generic, low-quality pads per month. Additional pads must be requested from corrections officers.

We chose to testify at the committee hearing last week, and in the ensuing days our testimony and images have made their way into article after article after article. We chose to confront the trauma of menstrual inequity and abuse because our sisters continue to suffer inside. At the time, we felt as if we were physically and mentally opening a door we had been knocking at for years while we were incarcerated, and finally our voices were heard. The bill passed the committee with a 5-to-4 vote. And we — women who lived in and survived Perryville — breathed a sigh of relief for the women still inside.

This week, however, the hope we had to effect tangible change proved premature as Rules Committee chairman Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said he will not hear the bill because ADC intends to correct the policy within the prison code itself. ADC Director Charles Ryan, whose department faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for failing to provide adequate healthcare for prisoners, said Tuesday that female prisoners would receive 36 pads per month as part of ADC’s proposed $1 billion annual budget.

Shope’s decision to not hear the bill in the Rules Committee, and to place the well-being of a vulnerable population back into the hands of ADC, is irresponsible. ADC has a long track record of medical abuse, and even under state scrutiny via Parsons v. Ryan, ADC refuses to comply under its own terms. The department has demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to meet the basic human rights of incarcerated people.

Between the two of us, we spent over a decade incarcerated in Perryville. We know, firsthand, that ADC policy and practice do not meet the hygienic needs of women inside. Women are not receiving enough usable feminine hygiene products to menstruate in a clean, healthy, and dignified manner.

Under the current regulations, women are issued 12 sanitary napkins per month and one roll of toilet paper each week. The majority of women currently incarcerated at Perryville have limited income, and once the 12 free pads are exhausted, some resort to using socks, wash clothes, or homemade tampons made from cotton swabs held together by floss. Though women at Perryville can request an additional 12 pads, the reality is that female prisoners face degradation and the fear of retribution should a guard feel put out by the request. Thus, many women do not ask for what they need to manage their cycles.

Women who are incarcerated at Perryville can purchase tampons, toilet paper, and additional pads from the prison commissary. But again, ADC has made it nearly impossible for most women to gain access to them. Prison wages start as low as $0.10 per hour. A prisoner can only possess up to 24 pads at any given time to remain in compliance. If she is out of compliance for any reason, she can be issued a citation and lose privileges, including phone calls, access to commissary, or even recreation and exercise. Minor violations of ADC policy — such as having 50 pads among one’s personal property — may result in the loss of privileges for weeks.

Menstruating while incarcerated in Arizona is a layered, precarious, and dangerous endeavor.

Legislating this issue — rather than simply trusting ADC to do the right thing — holds insulated prison officials publicly accountable. There is no oversight of ADC beyond Governor Doug Ducey, who is ultimately responsible for the misogyny and human rights violations that occur behind prison walls. Ducey, in his 2018 state of the state address, committed himself to re-entry work. Mitigating the trauma that women experience while incarcerated increases their chances of success once released from prison. It is up to Gov. Ducey to serve all his constituents, including women incarcerated in our state prison system.