Stained by a Sentence

In a system of incarceration built for men, imprisoned women face health challenges.

Words by Maddie Currie and Lillian Metzmeier

Sheri Ray, a former corrections officer, walked in for her shift at Clark County Jail and noticed a young woman curled up on a mattress on the floor. Ray remembers the torn blanket that barely covered her body, allowing everyone to see the bloody mess that was her jumpsuit. The woman told her that the previous guard said it “wasn’t his problem” and that she needed to find somebody to give her a jumpsuit. So, she sat there for 12 hours in a stained jumpsuit before Ray arrived.

“I’m a woman and a mother.It was beyond my humanity to not correct the situation,” Ray said.“First thing I did was I went and immediately got a hygiene pack, towel; I told her ‘here’s a brand new hygiene pack, take a shower.’”

This isn’t the first time a correctional facility has ignored the issue of inadequate access to feminine hygiene products for inmates, and Ray believes that at Clark County, the officers did not do enough to fix it.

It’s hearing of situations like these that inspired Nadia Flynn, a 17-year-old junior at Southwestern High School in Somerset, Ky, to find a solution for incarcerated women.

Flynn spent her past summer at the Governor’s School of Entrepreneurship starting “Feminine Focus,” a non-profit organization that provides feminine hygiene products such as menstrual cups, cotton underwear, and feminine wipes for incarcerated women in Kentucky.

“The population of female incarcerated individuals is increasing drastically,” Flynn said. Flynn believes as more women are entering the system, their basic, hygienic needs are being underserved.

What’s the issue?

In 2016, Kentucky’s female incarceration rate was more than two times the national average. Yet, we still use a criminal justice system that was created for men — one that doesn’t always accommodate for periods, pregnancy, and women’s health in general.

     “Our prisons and our jails in the state of Kentucky didn’t want to realize that we’re incarcerating two different people. One is a man and one is a woman, and we have different needs,” said Julie Raque Adams, the Kentucky senator for District 36.  

Incarcerated women include those in both jail and prison. To most people, the difference between the two is unclear. The biggest contrast is the length of the sentence. Jails are usually local, and the inmates are usually awaiting trial or serving short sentences. On the other hand, prisons are usually run by the state or federal government for inmates serving longer sentences for more serious crimes.

Differences aside, there’s an issue that both prisons and jails often overlook: feminine hygiene, or the care and general upkeep of female anatomy. Feminine hygiene products are essential to staying healthy and clean. This includes items that women use each month like tampons, pads, panty liners, and other sanitary products designed for the care of  the vulva and vagina.

“The feminine hygiene products part is such a small part of it,” said Dr. Amy Deeley, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist at All Women OBGYN, a women’s health clinic in Louisville. 

Deeley’s definition of feminine hygiene also includes testing for pregnancy, getting a pap smear, having a mammogram, screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and having rights to an abortion.

On top of access to sanitary products, regular trips to a gynecologist, a doctor who specializes in the female reproductive system and breasts, are another part of keeping the female body healthy.

To stay clean during the menstrual cycle, doctors recommend changing a tampon every four to eight hours to avoid Toxic Shock Syndrome, a potentially fatal disease caused by bacterial infections that can develop when a tampon is not changed frequently enough. A pad, depending on a woman’s flow, needs to be changed about every few hours.

If you do the math, the average woman uses four to five tampons or four pads a day for about a week each month. That’s about 20 tampons or 25 pads a month — or more, depending on each woman’s flow — to stay clean during their menstrual cycle.

Since feminine hygiene isn’t often prioritized in correctional facilities, some women are forced to make their own tampons — not only an unsanitary process but an unsafe one.

“The facility made it that if you got caught using a self-made tampon, you would be put on suicide watch,” Ray said. “It would be considered a form of attempted mutilation, which can be registered under suicide.”

Ray’s outlook on feminine hygiene in correctional facilities is a unique one as she has seen what it’s like to be an officer and an inmate. Ray spent two months as an undercover inmate at Clark County Jail on the A&E show, “60 Days In.” The show follows law-abiding citizens as they live among the facilities inmates for 60 days.

In jails, sanitary products are considered luxuries, so they’re pretty expensive. According to Ray, she received two pads every couple of weeks and after she ran out, she’d have to buy more.

But Clark County Jail’s communication officer disputes Ray’s claim, saying the jail provides eight pads per day for eight days in a 30-day time span. They claim to provide free extra pads and that they don’t provide tampons because they could become a potential contraband issue. Ray says that her experience as an inmate and an officer tells her that these claims do not hold true.

Stories like these are what motivated Flynn, the high school junior who founded “Feminine Focus,” to demand change.

“There is no reason as to why a woman has to use socks, toilet paper, and plastic bottles to ensure she does not bleed through her pants while being imprisoned,” Flynn said.

In at least one case, this lack of products has led to women needing emergency hysterectomies, which is the surgical removal of the uterus.

In 2018, a woman in a Maryland prison required a hysterectomy because she became ill after resorting to using toilet paper to make her own tampons, which can be a heavy expense                              for incarcerated women.

“Twelve tampons was almost 10 bucks in jail,” said Kimberly Wright, who spent five months in Ballard County Jail in Wickliffe, Ky. Officials at the jail declined to comment over the phone and did not respond over email.

Wright is now a resident of the Healing Place, a program dedicated to preparing inmates to integrate back into their normal lives.

“If it wasn’t for my family and friends to put money on my books, I was gonna have to do without,” Wright said.

“Putting money on the books” means an inmate has someone on the outside putting money in the inmate’s trust account which the facility maintains. This money can come from family or friends and can be used by the inmate to buy things in jail and prison.

“If you don’t have anyone to put money on the books, you’re stuck with two pads. And that’s if you can get a guard to even give them to you,” Ray said. “It was like pulling teeth to get them, and it was pretty horrific to see that as being the standard.”

In prison, inmates are able to work and earn an hourly wage, but in jail, inmates have no way to earn money. In Kentucky’s prison system, inmates are paid between 13 and 33 cents an hour. That’s about 30 hours of work just to buy a box of tampons.

In Wright’s experience at Ballard County, without money, you would have to do without tampons, shampoo, and even extra toilet paper if you run out.

“Each person got two rolls a week, and they were awful rolls,” Wright said. “If you bought them off canteen, a roll of toilet paper was like $2.25.”

A canteen is a store within a correctional facility where inmates can buy a variety of things, like hygiene products, snacks, and writing utensils. This is where inmates have to purchase additional pads, tampons, and toilet paper.

“Sparing toilet paper is something you never think you’ll have to do,” said Megan Walston, a past resident and peer mentor at the Healing Place who spent time in Louisville Metro Jail. Louisville Metro Corrections did not comment after attempts to contact them through email and over the phone.

“We’re human, we have to have toilet paper. It does make you feel like less of a person when you’re begging someone for toilet paper,” Walston said.

Another crucial aspect of feminine hygiene is access to clean undergarments. When underwear isn’t changed regularly, a buildup of bacteria can lead

to infections, and adequate treatment can be difficult to come by if prisons don’t have specialized physicians, especially since Kentucky prisons require all care to be provided within the facility itself.

“If you don’t have the proper undergarments and you go make your first impression in front of that judge, I don’t think there’s much dignity in that,” Raque Adams said. “If we’re going to incarcerate these women, we need to provide them with undergarments.”

If facilities are struggling to provide basic necessities like underwear, how are they expected to handle more serious issues?

Receiving adequate care only gets harder when a woman is pregnant, and according to Rauque Adams, 25% of women entering the Kentucky justice system are pregnant or have a child under one year old. The effects of the inadequate medical attention only become starker when a woman is expecting.

Pregnant women need a certain number of nutrients along with regular appointments with a gynecologist. According to Deeley, this includes 60 grams of protein, 45 grams of carbohydrates, and 2,500 calories, depending on the trimester.

“The pregnant girl I was with, she would get an 8 o’clock snack at night,” Wright said. “If she was lucky, they’d bring her some fruit from home.”

Ray said that a snack, or what some prisons call a second tray, is commonly used to supplement regular meals for pregnant women.

In correctional facilities, checkups are also scarce — this means the pregnancy cannot be properly monitored. In a 2011 report, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that 38 states don’t have “adequate policies” pertaining to prenatal care and 41 states don’t provide “appropriate nutrition” for pregnant incarcerated women.

“It increases the risk of miscarriages, premature labor, high-risk labor, can affect their future reproductive health,” Deeley said.

What comes next?

Here’s the good news: Kentucky is starting to take steps in the right direction. In April 2018, the Kentucky Senate passed a new law to improve the conditions for women in correctional facilities.

Raque Adams, a sponsor and head writer of the legislation, also dubbed it the “dignity” law. This legislation is specifically tailored to improve conditions for incarcerated women, ensuring that statewide jail standards include regulations for hygienic products, undergarments, adequate pregnancy nutrition, and prohibits the painful and dangerous practice of shackling during childbirth.

Members of the community, like Flynn, are also pushing for change and making it all on their own. She’s excited to be drawing attention to a cause that she is passioiate about through her advocacy project.

“Family, teachers, community members, etc, were always encouraging me to be the change I wanted to see,” Flynn said. “Feminine Focus” is a huge step toward that change for Flynn.

“Women’s hygiene products should be afforded to all incarcerated females without any hesitation or price attached,” Flynn said. “The pain of the menstrual cycle is already tough in nature, why should we not afford incarcerated females items to keep themselves clean and healthy?”

And don’t forget, there are also people working within the system to make a change. Ray left her job working as a guard because of her frustration with the department’s intentional neglect of the needs of the female inmates. She’s now a community correction consultant who inspects both private and public facilities to help them pass inspections.

“I felt like there was more I needed to do,” Ray said. “I gotta speak up, I’ve gotta be their voice.” •