Despite 2019 law, some jails still don’t provide free menstrual products to female inmates

A Virginia bill was passed in 2019 to provide female inmates in correctional facilities with free access to menstrual products, yet some facilities weren’t aware.(WYDaily/Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the passing of a bill last year to provide feminine hygiene products to inmates in Virginia, many jails seem to not be aware of the change.

Changes in laws regarding menstrual products for female inmates began in 2017 when a memo from the U.S. Department of Justice required federal prisons to provide products to female inmates without barriers, such as limitation and cost.

However, that mandate only covered women in federal prisons so Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax) introduced House Bill 83 that specifically addressed the need in state prisons and jails. 

House Bill 83 was passed in 2019 that required the State Board of Corrections and the director of the Department of Corrections to adopt a standard procedure to ensure that female inmates would receive feminine hygiene products without charge.

Many correctional facilities prior to the law were providing inmates with very low-quality and a limited supply of pads, said Shasheen Khurana with the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition. Inmates would also have to request the products and were only given one or two without charge. 

In many facilities, if an inmate needed more sanitary products, then they would have to buy them from the facility’s commissary which could be an unavailable expense for many inmates, Khurana said.

The coalition’s research found that typically the distribution of the products was low and inconsistent, which required them to find other products such as sheets or socks to manage their periods.

“It just wasn’t taken into account that the cycles of women are so different, some are much heavier than others,” she added. “And this bill was supposed to take care of that.”

Khurana said the coalition was worried the bill would not be implemented in correctional facilities after seeming a similar occurrence in Maryland.

As of 2018, incarcerated women in Maryland were supposed to receive free sanitary products but recently state officials learned the law wasn’t being honored and some facilities were still providing the products at a cost, according to reports from the Washington Post.

To ensure the same result didn’t occur in Virginia, Khurana said the coalition formed an accountability group. The group sent letters to 70 different jails in the state in April 2017 that asked facilities if they were aware of the change and whether or not they were implementing it. 

Of the 70 letters sent, only 12 jails replied. 

Some of the jails said they had implemented the new procedure, but others said they either weren’t aware of the new law or had cost issues that prevented them from implementing it.

According to Coalition records, the Botetourt-Craig County Regional Jail said they had not received any notification of the change. However, after receiving the letter from the Coalition they were implementing the new practice.

Following the small amount of responses to mailed letters, the organization also sent an email to 128 different sheriff’s offices and jails throughout the state.

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail was one of the few facilities that replied to the correspondence. In a letter to Khurana in April 2019, HRRJ former superintendent Col. David Hackworth said they had just recently learned that the minimum standard had changed to provide sanitary napkins and tampons without charge.

He said the facility had already implemented the process to provide both products to female inmates.

“We faced no barriers or challenges to comply with this standard,” Hackworth said in the letter.

WYDaily reached out to HRRJ for comment but did not receive a response.

According to records from the coalition, the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail did not respond to the letter nor the email.

Sara Mahayni, spokeswoman for VPRJ, said staff were not aware of any such letter being received.

She added that VPRJ has long provided sanitary napkins and tampons to inmates for free upon request even before House Bill 83 was passed.

“The process is very simply this; female inmates need only to make VPRJ staff aware that they are in need of a sanitary pad or tampon, and those items are provided to them,” Mahayni wrote in an email.

Khurana said the organization is still trying to reach out to correctional facilities across the state to ensure the new policy is being implemented. She said just because a bill is enacted into law doesn’t mean it is implemented uniformly.

“It’s a matter of dignity,” Khurana said. “Just the stories [from female inmates] were so horrific, so we wanted to make sure that we were following up and get feedback about whether or not these changes were actually occurring.”

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