VOICES: Ohio needs to mandate equitable access to menstrual products for the incarcerated

As a young girl being raised by my father, the subject of the female anatomy and its processes was taboo in my house. So much so that my dad thought his 10-year-old daughter would figure it out by giving her an educational gift: a box of put-it-together-yourself, plastic body parts.

But today, I am talking openly about the menstruation of women who are incarcerated in Ohio. Ohio’s American Civil Liberties Union reports that between 3,000 and 4,000 women are incarcerated in Ohio’s jails and prisons and are living in institutions without a specific policy regarding equitable distribution and access to feminine hygiene products with protection against discrimination. Ohio House Bill 30 has recently been introduced and is in the House Committee to address this issue.

As the Dayton Daily News reported in November of 2022, a group of women lobbied in Columbus for feminine hygiene access. Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction responded with a policy; however, the group is now seeking legislation to mandate a policy in all penal facilities across the state of Ohio which would hold facilities accountable to comply.

It is fitting that this group of women return to the Ohio Statehouse during Women’s History Month to again lobby for secure legislation.

Menstrual products are distributed without cost in facilities across the state but not fairly, adequately, or consistently, said Sara Metcalf who was incarcerated in Ohio. The allotment is generally lacking in quantity and substandard in quality, according to Metcalf. Additional menstrual products can be purchased at the commissary with state pay or funds provided by family or friends, said Dianira Garcia, who was incarcerated in Ohio. “I often did not have enough state pay money to purchase all the necessary toiletry items, and some of the time I had no financial help from my family,” she said.

Because the quantity is not enough for most women and no standard allotment fits all women’s bodies, women who are incarcerated often beg prison staff for these additional, basic hygiene necessities. This causes inhumane humiliation when requests are denied, reminding women of their powerlessness in jails and prisons. Requests are often postponed or used as a type of discipline by corrections officers.

Unfortunately, the stigma of menstruation still exists as a topic of shame and embarrassment. Not having proper supplies can lead to infection and other health issues from re-wearing bloody clothes or using makeshift materials. Facilities also need proper disposal receptacles to prevent contamination and the spread of bacteria and viruses. Restricted access to laundry and clothing is a concern while incarcerated.

Menstruation supplies are not a luxury item, but a healthcare item. The 8th amendment of the U.S. Constitution says no person should experience cruel or unusual punishment. Being without proper hygiene supplies can result in toxic health consequences as well as a woman being too embarrassed to leave the cell which could mean missing work, school, or visits with attorneys and family.

House Bill 30 would also prevent the denial of hygiene products due to discrimination. With a specific policy, women would not be denied feminine hygiene products because of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status.

Because there is no consistent policy, a woman has no support to enforce the issue when asking for menstrual products. The State of Ohio needs legislation mandating an equitable, anti-discrimination policy across the state covering distribution and access to menstrual products in all jails, prisons, and other penal facilities.

As of 2022, only 12 states have passed legislation creating or changing a policy to provide consistent distribution of products without cost to all women who are incarcerated. Most policies address appropriate quality and quantity. Although this issue may seem like a complex knot to unravel, money could ultimately be saved in healthcare costs, laundry, and state-issued clothing if a policy were working effectively.

Let’s have conversations about this forbidden yet pervasive topic and support the Menstrual Equity Bill by contacting the State and Local Government Committee asking to pass House Bill 30 through the House of Representatives in Ohio.

Heidi Arnold is an advocate for women who are incarcerated and those formerly incarcerated.

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