Complaints about incarcerated women being denied basic hygiene products like pads and tampons has caught the attention of state lawmakers. Now Florida is poised to approve a bill making those products and others available to women at no cost.
Rep. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) has shepherded House Bill 49 through various committees, earning near-unanimous support at each stop. He says he was motivated to back the issue after hearing from women currently, and formerly incarcerated, and at an early hearing, Jones read a letter from one of them.
“Imagine you’re a person who got their period inside a correctional facility. You’re given a limited supply of menstrual products per month, and when you’re out, you’re out. You may have no money to go to commissary, and if you do, you may have to weight that against other necessities, like making phone calls to your children or your attorney. You are forced to make the impossible decision of constructing your own products, from clothing to notebook paper in place of tampons," Jones shared from the letter.
"Most people that hear about it, the very first question they ask is, ‘Is this real?’ Yes, it is real," Rep. Amy Mercado, the bill's co-sponor, told committee members during the same hearing.
Sanitary products aren’t a want or a luxury for women, Mercado points out. It’s a matter of health.
“It’s a biological need," she said. "Women need to have full access to this at all times, regardless of where they are, and why.”
In 2015, the Miami Herald wrote about conditions at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala. The report contained comments from inmates who say they’ve been pressured by guards to have sex to avoid punishment or to receive hygiene products.
The “Dignity For Incarcerated Women” Act requires jails, public and private prisons and juvenile detention centers to also make non-lye based soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste available to inmates for free. The bill restricts male guards and other employees who work in women’s facilities from doing pat-downs and entering spaces where women are naked.
Women are the fastest-growing prison population and many who find themselves there have been victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. Rep. Dianne Hart, (D-Tampa) says she’s been traveling the state, visiting men and women’s prisons.
She’s also visited Lowell and says when she was there, the women, "were so happy to know these wonderful women put through and helped push legislation to make life different for them. For the things women need and can’t do without.”
Hart is also a co-sponsor of the bill and says, "there’s so much more work to be done in our prison system. Both for our women and our men. And I ask that you work with me on prison reform.”
The measure has gotten unanimous approval by the House and now awaits a vote soon in the Senate. Similar measures have been introduced Tennessee, New Jersey, Arizona and Georgia. It’s part of a national campaign called #Cut50 which advocates for criminal justice reform.