Written by Kyra McWilliams
Image from Daily News
It’s no secret that incarcerated people are treated differently than people with clean criminal records. Job discrimination as well as poor physical and mental health are common side effects of incarceration. The conversation about prisons and the justice system in the United States, however, often neglects one of the largest issues: women’s health and menstrual health. “Rates of substance use disorder, prior trauma and abuse, mental illness, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are high among incarcerated women, and higher than those of incarcerated men” (https://www.ncchc.org/womens-health-care).
Several federal prisons do not provide sufficient health care providers educated in female specific issues, such as gynecological or reproductive issues. Many preventable or treatable issues such as breast and ovarian cancer aren’t screened for or found in women, leading them to worsen and sometimes result in death. 5-10% of women entering prisons are pregnant, which can be extremely unsafe in a prison setting. They’re more likely to experience issues like vaginal bleeding or abdominal pain because of their exposure to unsafe living environments, violence, substance abuse, as well as their lack of proper medical care.
Mental health is also a large issue in correctional facilities. Many incarcerated women experience substance use disorders, or SUDs. These are often caused by or result in major depression and bipolar disorder. Many of these problems are caused by prior abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional. These past struggles can lead women to a lack of trust in authority and a lack of compliance. Prisons aren’t exactly trying to help either. In fact, Eric Balaban, a senior staff counsel with American Civil Liberties Union Nation Prison Project states, “prisons and jails are not hospitals. Not only are they not where inmates should be receiving mental health treatment, they are anti-therapeutic”. This comment is wildly disturbing considering how large an issue mental illness is in prisons. In a 2012 survey, over 20% of females reported serious distress in the past 30 days. Mental health issues, clearly, need to be treated by a medical professional.
Another large problem is the lack of resources incarcerated women receive to manage their menstrual cycles. In 2017, federal prisons passed legislation to provide free menstrual products to women, but it quickly became clear that they were failing to do so. Many inmates were left without menstrual products, were given products that didn’t work for them, or were forced to pay for the products with the little money they had. In local jails and state prisons, it’s up to the state the sum of products given. States often opt to supply prisons with low quality products to save money. This leads to women not having enough products and having to repeatedly ask guards- 40% of which are male- for sanitary products. This creates an environment of shame and helplessness surrounding periods. They’re often forced to create makeshift menstrual products from toilet paper or notebook paper. These materials aren’t intended for this usage, and can result in infections, which, as seen above, will likely go unnoticed and untreated.
The root of the incarcerated women’s health crisis is that incarcerated people are viewed as less than their free counterparts. This is painfully clear not only in the treatment of once-incarcerated people, but also in the treatment of people in prisons today. Women simply need more attention to be given to their health (especially in prison) as it’s not a safe environment. The lack of mental health services demonstrates that those running prisons simply don’t care about the well-being of prisoners. This issue is one that needs to be addressed immediately, as incarcerated women will just continue to suffer in silence and receive inadequate healthcare, as if they aren’t deserving of it.
This systemic issue is so large and can feel overwhelming for one person. You may be thinking, well what can I do? It’s such a massive problem and I can’t singlehandedly solve it. You’re right, you can’t fix it alone, but simply educating others on this overlooked topic will help. Send a letter or email to your state’s governor, mayor, or a representative. Let them know your thoughts,offer solutions, and urge them to enact change. We can only solve this problem if we first raise awareness, and simply sharing an article, writing to an elected official, or talking to someone about this helps.
Written by writer Kyra McWilliams