While activists and advocates have fought for access to free period products for incarcerated women in federal prisons — and won — there is another group that continues to be denied access to tampons and sanitary pads: individuals being held in police custody. Now that, too, is prompting activism — and legal action.
One woman leading the charge is Jennifer Flores, of Queens, who says she was “humiliated” when New York Police Department officers refused to provide her a period product while detaining her for 13 hours, directing her to use toilet paper instead. She is now suing the NYPD for not providing “medically necessary” period products in any of the city’s 77 precincts — a failure that she says violates the basic rights of the countless menstruating individuals coming in and out of NYPD custody every day.
And such experiences extend far beyond the bounds of New York. In Indiana, for example, Melissa Houglin filed a class-action lawsuit after being provided only three sanitary napkins and one tampon while booked in an Indiana jail for six days; and one of the tampons came from a fellow inmate as officers ignored her requests for 36 hours. Two other women, Misty Mayer and Brandy Diokhane, signed on to the lawsuit, and the parties settled in February 2017.
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Flores’ story dates back to October 2016, when — as a passerby — she intervened as NYPD officers questioned teens in a public park. A former paralegal, Flores stopped to advise the teens on their rights and wound up being arrested on charges of obstruction, according to her lawsuit. Flores says she already knew when she arrived at the 108th precinct that she needed to change her tampon. So after a male officer took down her information, she asked for a new one. Much to her surprise, he replied that the precinct “didn’t have any.”
When the officer went on to confirm with a woman on staff that they had no tampons or sanitary pads to give her, Flores alleges, “They looked at me and they said, ‘There’s a bathroom there and there’s toilet paper. Figure it out.’”
Left with no other choice, Flores called a lawyer, Kenneth Belkin, whom she had been put in touch with through a colleague. Though she had never met him before, Flores asked him to buy her a tampon and bring it to the precinct — an unusual request that outraged Belkin.
“It’s totally unbelievable that the NYPD doesn’t have tampons. They certainly have first aid and would bring Band-Aids, then certainly they should have or bring tampons,” Belkin tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
Still, Belkin wouldn’t arrive at the precinct for another six hours — during which time, Flores says, the blood had soaked through her underwear and stained her pants, leaving her “humiliated” and “embarrassed.”
“For me to not know when it would arrive or if I would have the opportunity to ask him to bring it to me — I didn’t know what to do. I was nervous and scared — scared that I was going to get an infection,” Flores tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I tried to put as much toilet paper as I could but my underwear was ruined and bloody. I could actually smell it. No one should have to smell the blood soaking through their underwear because they didn’t have a tampon available.”
Although Belkin was eventually able to get Flores a tampon, she was forced to wait in police custody in her bloodied clothes until her arraignment the next day; her case was later dismissed.
“It’s a basic right to provide women with necessary hygiene products,” Flores tells Yahoo Lifestyle about the suit, in which she claims the city violated her civil rights.
In the lawsuit, filed on Oct. 11, 2018, Belkin argues that without access to tampons or sanitary pads, “women are forced to use unsanitary and dirty alternatives or be forced to sit in their own blood—which can lead to infections, toxic shock, and an increased risk of diseases such as cervical cancer.”
Failing to provide menstrual products to its menstruating detainees — amounting to approximately 100,000 each year, the lawsuit states — demonstrates a “pattern of deliberate indifference to the medical needs of women in NYPD custody,” and one that is discriminatory and which violates their constitutional rights.
“[The Constitution] has a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It is cruel and unusual punishment to not provide the necessary medical attention — which these feminine hygiene products are,” says Belkin.
While both federal and some state laws mandate that correctional facilities provide free period products, they don’t explicitly include women who are held in jail or juvenile detention. And despite the fact that the 2017 federal First Step Act required correctional facilities to provide tampons and sanitary napkins to inmates at no cost, a 2017 Bureau of Prisons report cited “many prisoners continue to experience irregular allocation of products, restrictions on availability of product type or size, or having to pay for products.”
In the U.K., after reports revealed that individuals in police custody were regularly denied menstrual products, swift public outcry prompted the British parliament to pass legislation to ensure detainees were provided free period products. But the same has not been done in the U.S. And people who advocate for menstrual equity, or equal access to necessary period products, argue that not providing such access is a violation of an individual’s civil rights.
“The truth of the matter is, for anyone who menstruates, [they deserve] the ability to manage it with dignity, with proper information and education, and that certainly extends to the products that we use to manage menstruation – pads, tampons, cups and otherwise,” Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who serves as the vice president for development at the NYU Brennan Center for Justice, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Without access to those, it truly is an added burden to participate fully and fairly in all of the ways we do in society, whether it’s [being] productive at school, in the workplace or having a shred of dignity while in the corrections system.”
Although New York City became the first city in the nation to require public schools, shelters and prisons to provide period products, the law does not include temporary police holdings like juvenile detention centers or jails.
Weiss-Wolf, who helped advocate and push for New York City’s 2016 legislation ensuring access to period products, praises the city’s access laws as an important “first step” to menstrual equity. She adds, however, that the 2016 legislation should include any government agency that deals with individuals who have a period.
“Any agency that women interact with is an agency that should be considering menstruation or menstrual access,” says Weiss-Wolf. “We have loads of anecdotal evidence that for people that don't have free access to these products, especially when they're in a particularly vulnerable situation — including being detained by the police or incarcerated by the city or state — that [it] surely does have a detrimental impact.”
For Flores, a criminal justice graduate, the goal is not only to prevent other women from going through what she did but to encourage NYPD officers to get the education needed to understand why providing period products to all citizens is crucial.
“We’re in the 21st century and women shouldn’t be treated this way,” Flores tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Whether you’re a good or bad person, no one deserves to go through this.”
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