Periods & Prisons: Virginia’s Recent Struggle to Improve Menstrual Equity in State Facilities

By: Gianna Fienberg

In April 2018, Virginia took the important step of ensuring the incarcerated had access to menstrual products at no cost through the enactment of House Bill 83.[1] The bill directed the State Board of Corrections and the Director of the Department of Corrections to adopt and implement a standard or policy “to ensure the provision of feminine hygiene products to female inmates without charge.”[2] However, while these respective entities were working on developing these standards, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) announced a different policy in September banning women wearing tampons or menstrual cups from entering a state facility to visit an inmate.[3]

The announcement of the policy, which would not take effect until October 2018, was instantly met with outcry and criticism.[4] The Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, emphasized the importance of family, friends, and community in facilitating the successful rehabilitation of inmates and re-entry into society.[5] She urged VDOC to take steps to encourage visitation, rather than making it more difficult.[6] Others, like Jana White, co-founder of the Virginia Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, declared the VDOC policy a violation of visitors’ privacy rights.[7] Furthermore, the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition (VMEC), a non-partisan group that aims to promote menstrual equity in Virginia, issued a statement highlighting the unique needs of each menstruating individual and the dignity involved in choosing how to meet one’s menstrual needs.[8] VMEC also responded to VDOC’s defense that female visitors could replace their tampon or menstrual cup with a pad provided by the facility by noting that some individuals require more than just a pad to manage their menstrual flow.[9] Finally, VMEC organized a petition calling upon Brian Moran, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, to rescind the policy.[10]

VDOC urged that the purpose of the policy was to prevent contraband from being smuggled into facilities.[11] Lisa Kinney, a VDOC spokeswoman, argued that having women switch out their tampons or menstrual cups for pads was actually less invasive than the standing VDOC policy of offering potential contraband smugglers the choice between undergoing a strip search or going home.[12] Kinney further cited the opioid epidemic and numerous inmate deaths from drug overdoses as justification for the VDOC policy.[13] Less than a month after the policy was announced, a woman was caught attempting to hide Suboxone, an opioid drug used to treat opioid addicts, in her vagina.[14]

Still, in response to the grassroots movement in opposition to the policy, Moran suspended the implementation of the policy.[15] Moran explained that the policy would not be implemented until a full review of the potential consequences was conducted.[16] However, even with the suspension in place, menstruating individuals were denied access to their incarcerated loved ones.[17] Moreover, some women shared their stories of having their visiting privileges revoked prior to the September 2018 VDOC policy announcement, revealing that barring visitor access to menstruating individuals is common practice in Virginia.[18] As a result, Delegate Mark Keam introduced House Bill 1884 during the 2019 legislative session.[19] The bill, which passed the house and is currently in committee in the senate, aims to provide transparency about VDOC’s visitor policies.[20] HB 1884 would require VDOC to develop a written policy concerning visitors wearing tampons and menstrual cups and notify visitors about the policy ahead of their scheduled visit.[21]

Stigma surrounding periods and lack of access to appropriate menstrual products has significant consequences for menstruating individuals, including poor academic performance and risk of infection.[22] Additionally, if correctional officers ask embarrassing questions about the menstrual products a visitor uses or subject visitors to invasive searches, family and friends may forego visiting inmates to avoid such a hassle. Virginia should be focused on rehabilitating inmates and providing them with as much support as possible, rather than policing menstruating individuals’ bodies.

 

[1] H.B. 83, 2018 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2018).

[2] Id.

[3] Ned Oliver, Virginia to Ban Women from Wearing Tampons While Visiting Prisons, Va. Mercury (Sept. 24, 2018), https://www.virginiamercury.com/blog-va/virginia-prison-bans-female-visitors-from-wearing-tampons/?fbclid=IwAR38mhCjLSj_zsRjRtdG3zTbvFlgvtzVe3pB_J3-X7ezT0F3nz1rpJVvo3E.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Virginia Prisons to Ban Tampons for Female Visitors, Associated Press (Sept. 24, 2018), https://wtop.com/virginia/2018/09/virginia-prisons-to-ban-tampons-for-female-visitors/.

[8] Letter from Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition to Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian J. Moran (Sept. 25, 2018) (on file with the Virginia Menstrual Equity Coalition).

[9] Id.

[10] Phyllis Randall, Stop VDOC from Policing Periods!, Change.org (Sept. 2018),  https://www.change.org/p/brian-moran-stop-stop-vdoc-from-policing-periods?fbclid=IwAR1-4ia4nG3yGbckQZRllJGWXDJKo__UE4V97woguYvHvYEDwL0–627_8Q.

[11] See e.g., Oliver, supra note 3.

[12] Frank Green, Virginia Prison Visitors to be Barred from Wearing Tampons; Contraband Concern Cited, Rich. Times-Dispatch (Sept. 24, 2018), https://www.richmond.com/news/local/crime/virginia-prison-visitors-to-be-barred-from-wearing-tampons-contraband/article_561caf11-8740-52db-8fd3-114c7a423577.html?utm_source=RTD+Email&utm_medium=_RTD+Afternoon+News&utm_campaign=_RTD+Afternoon+News&fbclid=IwAR1LXA_EB07pVFQ-1BSXdM109E5-NuYD1HLZdFl_iuNrqGy4wYA2-dg-708.

[13] Id.; Oliver, supra note 3.

[14] Frank Green, Woman Charged with Attempting to Smuggle Drugs Hidden in her Vagina into a Virginia Prison, Rich. Times-Dispatch (Oct. 2, 2018), https://www.richmond.com/news/local/crime/woman-charged-with-attempting-to-smuggle-drugs-hidden-in-her/article_577f639f-ea9d-5780-a8ae-3bcfe3a15be6.html?fbclid=IwAR0Vf92yaORaeWRXqJcTbeVnNo3tFuisVJwHuDA8u7Rxlt7VVYfEOVXF0cg.

[15] Frank Green, Moran Stops Policy that Would Bar Women from Wearing Tampons When Visiting Virginia Inmates, Rich. Times-Dispatch (Sept. 25, 2018), https://www.richmond.com/news/local/crime/moran-stops-policy-that-would-bar-women-from-wearing-tampons/article_a3cc88ec-c453-5b8a-9a2b-198fd67df570.html?fbclid=IwAR2wAtuM9cAmq2QUuiVYp4zm-Qn5Z4C1j1qe5N5DD-OFHkuDih2huUKTe-A.

[16] Id.

[17] Holly Seibold, Despite Department of Corrections Memo, Menstruating Visitors at Virginia Prisons Continue to Face Inhumane Body Cavity Searches for Contraband, Blue Va. (Jan. 30, 2019), https://bluevirginia.us/2019/01/despite-department-of-corrections-memo-menstruating-visitors-at-virginia-prisons-continue-to-face-inhumane-body-cavity-searches-for-contraband?fbclid=IwAR1Z7ZbLGtleVrxx6CJzkvX3zU60cjEg6tVScAD8GN8ZjlBFO0zH8iwTglE; Lauren Gill, For Wearing Tampon, Virginia Woman Says She’s Barred from Prison Visits, Shadowproof (Oct. 16, 2018), https://shadowproof.com/2018/10/16/wearing-tampon-virginia-woman-says-shes-barred-prison-visits/?fbclid=IwAR0Bbw_opI9jJ60NJUlJMeg2KKAOWPLTAdPXfriGLFshKMcdDfggC2mFdB8.

[18] Seibold, supra note 17.

[19] HB 1884 State Correctional Facilities; Visitors Wearing Tampons or Menstrual Cups, Va. Legis. Info. Sys., https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?191+sum+HB1884 (last visited Feb. 10, 2019).

[20] Id.

[21] H.B. 1884, 2019 Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Va. 2019).

[22] See Tonjanique Evans et al., Univ. of D.C. Sch. of Law Legislation Clinic, Periods, Poverty, and the Need for Policy: A Report on Menstrual Inequity in the United States 9, 15 (2018), https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.law.udc.edu/resource/resmgr/LegClinic/2018_periods_policy_report.pdf.

css.php