Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Maryland lawmakers are poised to pass a bill requiring correctional facilities to provide free menstrual sanitary products for inmates. Similar legislation has been passed in a number of other states, the most notable being Arizona, where protesters mailed legislators tampons and pads as a part of the #LetItFlow campaign. As the campaign emphasized, menstrual products are a necessity, not a luxury.
Dehumanizing practices regarding menstrual product access in prisons have been legal in most states until now, and legislation like this signifies an important step in the pursuit of female reproductive rights. In most correctional facilities, women are allowed a certain number of pads per month, and the limit is typically not enough for someone with a heavy flow or longer period. Women have to choose between spending their minuscule income on hygiene products or on phone calls to their loved ones. This is dehumanizing.
[Read more: Progressives must stop ignoring prisoners’ rights]
Not only do women have to walk around wearing overused pads and tampons, or perhaps nothing at all, correctional officers often use these products as bargaining chips to motivate inmates to stay in line, which further dehumanizes them. This isn’t like using candy to motivate a child — menstrual products are a necessity, not something women should receive as a reward for good behavior. It is no different from keeping someone from having toilet paper or a shower; if we have the funds for these things, it is basic human decency to provide them.
This bill normalizes menstruation in a way that feels new. Some people still find it embarrassing for a woman to openly purchase pads, or to speak freely about their period, despite it being a completely natural process. The bill also recognizes that, inmates or not, no one deserves to be treated this way. While the prison system dehumanizes inmates in a variety of other ways, this bill would at least eliminate one of them in Maryland facilities.
One public defender in New York testified about how a lack of menstrual products prevented her client from meeting with her legal team. Her client did not feel comfortable walking in the facility with period blood on her pants, and I doubt many people would.
Additionally, this bill is a matter of agency. A correctional officer should not have control over a woman’s reproductive health and menstrual hygiene — that control should be in the hands of individual women. This seems like a basic concept, but more often than not, women lack full agency over their own bodies.
It is shameful that providing access to menstrual products in correctional facilities has taken this long, but it doesn’t mean we should take this action lightly. The fact that lawmakers are finally taking menstruation and hygiene products seriously means something. This bill opens the door for more conversation and action regarding female reproductive rights and health.
Liyanga de Silva is a sophomore English major. She can be reached at email@example.com.