Temple Illuminatus

Federal prisoners now get free pads and tampons. Our battle isn’t over yet.

PERSPECTIVE | A former prisoner says the way we treat periods across society has to change


My cup of infamy runneth over.

If it’s not my 13 felony convictions or what those convictions say I did, then it’s my underwear that bring me notoriety. I’m the woman who copped a very public guilty plea two years ago to staining her underwear with blood while she was in prison, a mea culpa that’s been shared over 123,000 times.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was joining a very public war — on many fronts — over menstrual equity. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) recently introduced federal legislation that would assure all women unfettered access to the hygiene items they need. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act which would assure that that all women in federal prison will receive necessary sanitary supplies — free of charge.

A cease-fire of sorts was declared this month when the Bureau of Prisons announced that maxi pads and tampons will be distributed immediately.

I never expected my stains to seep so far.

When the third season of “Orange Is the New Black” was about to premiere two summers ago and a picture of Piper using maxi pads as shower shoes finagled its way into newsfeeds everywhere, a handful of people asked me if prisoners actually used sanitary napkins like that.

My six-plus years in a maximum security prison qualified me as an expert.
The truth is, I would have flirted with foot fungus to keep my maxi pads where they belonged.

Maxi pads and tampons are scarce in prisons to the point of uncleanliness. When I was in prison I had an undiagnosed cervical polyp. Without proper medical intervention, I bled, without exaggeration, for two years straight. Which meant that I needed supplies every day.

I thought reality should color how audiences view “Orange is the New Black” so I pitched an opinion piece to the Guardian. My essay went viral.

Readers were outraged. Students contacted me for comment for academic projects. People started GoFundMe campaigns and were writing to legislators.

I made a mess and for the first time in years, it wasn’t something between my legs that I had to wipe away.

Society vilifies women in prison more than our male counterparts, but all of a sudden people appeared to have real sympathy for us.

But any decent SAT prep course will teach you the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy implies solidarity while sympathy maintains its distance and can back itself right into pity.

I realized that people’s horror, much of which came from men, wasn’t about the mistreatment of women.

No one seemed to care about the front end of our stories — what happened to bring us to the social brink of incarceration — that poverty, mental illness and addiction drove most of us inside.

A “landmark settlement” had been reached just weeks before I published my essay between an Alabama prison and the Department of Justice after federal authorities investigated the facility and found that inmates were often forced to exchange sex acts with the staff to get tampons and pads.

This historic moment in corrections received little fanfare. The DOJ report also confirmed that women were called “dope whores” by a guard, a fact that fazed few.

But to bleed through your underwear? That got pity from everyone.

The outrage about lack of supplies wasn’t founded on a belief in baseline dignity for all people. Getting supplies to incarcerated women was foremost on everyone’s list, not getting them justice. People were happy to open their wallets and donate maxi pads to prisons but won’t open their hearts or their homes to women when they are released.




Before I was incarcerated, I pretended like my period didn’t exist because it was so conversationally out of bounds. I would never even acknowledge my period to men.

I had no choice in prison because I had to ask men for supplies. Even when I got the supplies, I would wrap them up in my towel as I headed for the shower.

My severe stains were indelible proof that blood happens. Still, it becomes paramount when obstacles to keeping clean are thrown in our way.

It’s not just prisoners who suffer like this. Homeless women can’t afford supplies and any woman who can afford the supplies gets hit with a “tampon tax.” Anyone who wants to know what’s inside her tampons or pads is destined for disappointment.

Society makes us want to conceal this essential part of our biology and then makes it hard, expensive, impossible and unsafe for us to hide it or manage it.

More than simply harming our finances and health, society is using this most basic bodily function to seize power from women.

Everyone gets runny noses, a flow that people generally agree is also vile. But there’s no legislative debate over how much Kleenex costs or the manufacturers’ ability to hide what’s in each tissue. Each box is labeled.

It’s just assumed that if someone asks for a tissue, they should get the tissue they need. The opportunity to clean up that bodily function isn’t mired in endless negotiation and bickering.

Talking openly about menstruation can’t be restricted to hygiene, as important as it is. The appeal to public health sidles up to the issue by making it seem like its everyone’s problem. That just gets us halfway there.

The truth is that it shouldn’t be anyone’s problem because your period really isn’t a predicament. It’s proof of life. And no one should be ashamed of that.

But we are. Shame is ingrained in menstruation, a process that women can’t avoid.

That’s the bloody mess we need to clean up.


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