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Monday, 24 April 2017

In jail, pads and tampons as bargaining chips

When Tara Oldfield-Parker, 24, was arrested on charges of shoplifting, she had just gotten her period. She asked the officers in charge of her holding cell in a police station in Queens for a sanitary pad.

Sure, they said. But they would need to call an ambulance to get one.

After about an hour and a half, they produced a sterile gauze pad, apparently obtained from an ambulance. It was the kind of rectangular gauze used to bandage an arm, with no adhesive.

It might seem strange that a place where female suspects are held would not have something as basic as a sanitary pad. Ms. Oldfield-Parker’s story reflects the way menstruation can be treated in New York’s jails: as an inconvenience, almost a surprise, to be met, at times, with an improvised response. Simple supplies like pads and tampons can become bargaining chips, used to maintain control by correction officers, or traded among incarcerated women, according to former inmates and advocates on the issue.

Tara Oldfield-Parker, now an inmate in upstate New York, said that when she asked for a sanitary pad at a police station in Queens, she was given a bandage. Credit Shane Lavalette for The New York Times

Each level of incarceration in New York has a different policy (or no policy) related to menstruation. Ms. Oldfield-Parker’s cell had no supplies. But in the state’s prisons and jails, these women and advocates say, inconsistent access to tampons and pads has less to do with stock and more to do with power. The facilities have enough supplies, but they are not available equally to all the women who need them.

At the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island, where about 600 women usually are imprisoned, pads and tampons are distributed weekly. It’s up to officers to determine how the pads reach the women: Some leave them out in a bucket or box; others hand them out to individual women who ask.

“Some women have reported no issues at all; they ask and get what they need,” said Kelsey De Avila, a jail services social worker with Brooklyn Defender Services who spends about three days a week on Rikers. “Others have to beg for it.”

Since the distribution is left up to individual officers, there is an easy opportunity for mishandling.

A jail for women on Rikers Island. Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

BettyAnn Whaley, 56, who was released from Rikers last June and now lives in the North Bronx, said pads were accessible “seven out of 10 times,” though they were a flimsy version of what you might buy at a store. Tampons were harder to get.

“They were only given to certain housing units,” Ms. Whaley said in an interview after her release. And even then, she added, “they were only dispensed to certain individuals — you had to be sort of chummy-chummy in order to receive them.”

Others agreed that it isn’t an issue of supply. Chandra Bozelko, a writer and advocate who was incarcerated at a state prison in Connecticut, said menstrual supplies were indeed used as tools of control. Officers sometimes tried to teach women a lesson by limiting access, affecting self-esteem as well as basic hygiene.

“It turns you on yourself,” Ms. Bozelko said. “You start to hate your body.”

In both state and city facilities in New York, women recalled humiliating experiences related to getting what they needed.

Christine, 24, who requested that her surname not be used because she is incarcerated upstate, said she would never forget what happened to her at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women’s prison in Westchester County that serves as a reception center for newcomers. She was going to be transferred to another prison, so her father came to visit her. She had her period and had not been given any pads. After the visit, she was strip-searched as blood ran down her legs. The female correction officer was cruel, she said.

In the television show “Orange Is the New Black,” a prisoner uses sanitary pads as shower shoes.

“She was telling me how disgusting I was, ‘It’s disgusting,’” she recalled. “I was so embarrassed.”

When asked about the episode, a spokesman for the State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which oversees New York’s state prisons, wrote that the agency was “continuously reviewing its policies to best meet female inmates’ personal hygiene needs.” The spokesman added that under departmental policy, “female inmates are provided sanitary napkins on an as-needed basis.”

Ms. Whaley recalled an episode at Rikers when a correction officer threw a bag of tampons into the air and watched as inmates dived to the ground to retrieve them, because they didn’t know when they would next be able to get tampons.

The city’s Correction Department, which manages Rikers, looked into the matter after being questioned about it, but said there was no way for it to confirm that it had occurred. The department said that with an average of 500 grievances filed a year at the Singer Center, none in the past three years had been related to menstrual hygiene.

Lacking menstrual supplies can also disrupt an incarcerated woman’s rehabilitation. Andrea Nieves, a Brooklyn public defender, testified last year before a New York City Council committee looking into the availability of feminine hygiene products in jails that a client at Rikers asked her social worker not to visit while the client was menstruating, afraid that she would bleed through her uniform and be ashamed.

BettyAnn Whaley, formerly held at Rikers, said female inmates there “had to be sort of chummy-chummy” with jail officers to get tampons. Credit Elias Williams for The New York Times

Name-brand tampons are available at the jail commissary for about $4 a box, though some women can’t afford them. At Rikers, women said tampons were valuable enough that they could be traded for a bag of chips or a pack of coffee.

This sense of scarcity was echoed at other facilities: Frances McMurry, who had been incarcerated at Taconic Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Bedford Hills, N.Y., through last September, said sanitary products were “a higher currency than sugar, coffee and cigarettes.”

Last June, the Council passed a law requiring city jails to provide free feminine hygiene products to inmates. It’s not clear that the law made a difference. It does not include an enforcement mechanism and does not apply to state prisons, where a 2015 report by the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York found that more than half of survey respondents (514 of 957) said the monthly supply of menstrual pads did not meet their needs.

Ms. Bozelko, who is an adviser for a book about the politics of periods, mentioned two ways in which prisons and jails could improve. First, require officers to put the pads or tampons in a public place, as some already do at Rikers, so that women do not need to ask for them. Some may be wasted, but Ms. Bozelko said that was the price of making sure women have what they need. And, second, individual officers need to be held accountable if they do not supply the products.

Ms. Bozelko said she was often asked about a scene from the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” in which the protagonist wears shower shoes made out of sanitary napkins. Though she recalled that some incarcerated women used pads for other purposes, Ms. Bozelko said she could not understand it.

“I’d rather get foot fungus than waste those things,” she said. “I had to go to war for each one of them.”

(Source: NYT)

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