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For some incarcerated women, getting ahold of menstrual products is a nightmare

Photo illustration of a row of tampons in the form of prison bars
(Photo illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times; Photo via Getty Images)
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One of the things Alissa Moore remembers clearly from her time in prison is how the guards taunted her when she asked for a tampon. Sometimes they’d outright refuse. Other times they’d ask her to come to a closet or a back room, where she said, on several occasions, she was sexually assaulted.

If she wanted to avoid that humiliation, Moore could buy extra tampons from the commissary. But a box cost $7, and prisoners earned as little as 8 cents an hour in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Sometimes, that meant Moore had to trade food for tampons. Less fortunate inmates resorted to using towels or tissues to absorb the blood.

“It was hell,” she told The Times.

Over the past decade, prisons and jails in California and across the country enacted laws and policies making menstrual products free to inmates. But problems remain.

In New York, jail officials admitted last year that they’d stopped giving out free supplies. In Texas, women say that sometimes they get challenged by guards when they ask for more tampons or pads. And in California, after passing one bill to address the problem in 2020, several reports have surfaced where women were still denied menstrual products.

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Now California is trying to fix it for good. State lawmakers are considering proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 1810, to require jails, prisons and juvenile lock-ups to make tampons and pads readily accessible so that women don’t have to beg prison officials for menstrual supplies.

“We know power dynamics [in prisons] is ripe for abuse,” said Ruth Dawson, a legislative attorney for ACLU California Action. “It seems like a small tweak in the law but we think it will have big implications for incarcerated people who menstruate.”

Last month, the bill unanimously passed the Assembly floor. It’s now headed to the Senate with bipartisan support. If passed and signed by the governor, the measure would take effect next year.

When California enacted its landmark Reproductive Dignity for Incarcerated People Act in 2020, the measure aimed to remedy an array of problems. In addition to mandating better access to perinatal medical care behind bars and banning the use of Tasers and chemical weapons on pregnant inmates, the legislation required jails and prisons to provide free tampons and sanitary pads.

But last year a report issued by California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta — who authored the 2020 legislation when he was in the Assembly — found that almost all of the jails in the state’s 58 counties failed even to create policies to comply with the law.

Since then, more than 50 of those counties have fixed their policies. But there are still problems. Since September, the ACLU of Northern California identified eight cases in Los Angeles, Monterey and Bay Area jails where women were denied menstrual supplies.

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“That is not surprising,” said Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles), who authored Assembly Bill 1810.

Bryan said some women have reported officers withholding period products from them as retaliation for filing complaints. Other women, he said, reported that guards use requests for menstrual products as a means to coerce them into providing sexual favors.

When asked for comment, a state prison official said that menstrual products are made free and available for all inmates.

“All incarcerated people receive free basic supplies necessary for maintaining personal hygiene, including menstrual products,” said Alia Cruz, a spokesperson for the corrections department. “Items are readily available and replenished every week, or upon request.”

The CDCR said it does not comment on pending legislation but said that inmates can file complaint forms if they feel they are not being accommodated.

To avoid those situations, Bryan’s bill would make menstrual products accessible for women to take as needed — without asking staff. The estimated cost to the state would be minimal.

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The first time Moore got her period, she was 11 and living at a school for troubled youth in Mendocino. She’d been arrested on felony and misdemeanor robbery charges and served her three-year sentence at the Catholic reform school instead of at a juvenile detention facility. It was still a difficult place to go through puberty.

“Nobody was talking to us about our menstrual cycles or sex,” Moore told The Times. “No one is talking to us about our bodies at all. Then you are incarcerated, and one day you have your period. That was fairly traumatizing.”

At 17, Moore was arrested again. This time, it was a second-degree murder charge for the killing of her boyfriend, who she said had abused her. In 1997, she was sentenced to 15 years to life.

As a teenager in a California prison, Moore said her period became a monthly anxiety. She was given about a dozen tampons and a dozen pads each month, though the exact number varied based on supply and was up to the discretion of the guards. When the law passed in 2020, she said during that year, until she was released a year later, officers tried to make it “appear as if they were available” to the administration and any outside visitors. “But it was all facade,” she said. Because of a medical condition, she experienced long periods of bleeding that required her to need more.

“It was happening to a large majority of the women,” Moore said. “I couldn’t say that it was just me.”

After entering the system as a child, Moore left it behind three years ago. She now works as a reentry coordinator at All of Us or None, a nonprofit organization led by formerly incarcerated people.

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She remembers clearly the first time she bought tampons from Walmart — something she’d never done before.

“It was almost like a surreal experience,” she said. “I didn’t need to stand there and be sexualized for getting a tampon. It took a while for things like that to sink in.”


The problem is not limited to state prisons. In the Los Angeles jails, inspections show access to menstrual supplies has been inconsistent, sometimes due to an apparent lack of availability and sometimes due to deputies’ unwillingness to hand out supplies. Two years ago, the county’s Sybil Brand Commission reported that people living in some dorms of the Century Regional Detention Facility — the primary women’s jail — couldn’t get tampons, for unclear reasons. The following year, the commission found “deputies taking it upon themselves to decide if a woman will get an additional napkin if she needs it.”

Since then, inspections have generally turned up fewer problems with access to menstrual supplies — though this year commissioners reported that during an April visit one woman told them she had her period and didn’t know where she would get a pad for the next day.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in a statement said it is “committed to providing free and easy access to sanitary napkins, panty liners, and tampons” so women in custody “can focus on their rehabilitation with dignity.”

Officials also said that in most areas of the women’s jail, menstrual products are available in common areas. But “based on the challenges” that the jail’s most severely mentally ill inmates living in “high-observation housing” face, department officials said that women living in those areas have to request menstrual supplies.

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Over the past decade, at least two dozen states have passed legislation to ensure access to menstrual products, according to the Prison Flow Project. Maryland, Delaware and Florida were among those that passed measures in 2018, and since then each year a few more states have followed suit.

Most states make those free supplies available only upon request. As a result, many women still face a lack of access that Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, described as “absolutely unacceptable.”

“One of the big problems in addition to limits on the supplies is that in many places they have to request the supplies — and sometimes have to show their bloody clothes to an officer as proof that they need them,” she said. “Any time you put women in a position where they have to request something from staff, it makes them vulnerable to the staff wanting something in return, including sexual favors.”

Texas prison officials stressed that menstrual products are free for inmates, and that the agency “takes seriously” making sure they are available.

“Last year, we began a campaign to educate inmates about the availability of these products,” said spokeswoman Amanda Hernandez.

But Kwaneta Harris, a 51-year-old doing time in another central Texas prison, said guards have grilled her about why someone her age still needs pads and tampons.

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“If one more guard says to me when I ask for them, ‘Ain’t you too old to still be having a cycle?’ It ain’t gonna be pretty,” she wrote. “I’m sick of explaining that perimenopause means hot flashes AND heavy periods to guards the same age as my kids.”

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