Equality in Louisiana's Prisons
The American Prison is a harsh landscape offering few pleasant accommodations, designed solely for retribution and restitution. Being incarcerated means learning to retool and refashion routines and methods for daily life. The simplest tasks, like taking a shower, become a challenging exercise of negotiation. Consider what most people need for a shower: soap at the very least and in some instances, a razor or conditioner. These sundry items are, to those on the outside, easily accessible. These can easily be added to a routine grocery shopping list and picked up when convenient. But for the prisoner, choices must be made about what to buy and how it is best rationed out, dependent on earned income and the financial support of those on the outside. Everything comes at a high cost in prison and as such, must be earned or traded. At the very least, however, prisons should provide essentials that afford and extend human dignity. That is why it may come to a great surprise that some incarcerated people are impacted by the cost of these basics needs in a disproportionate manner. This is especially true for women, who are burdened by feminine care that must be met to ensure comfort, hygiene, and health. This is non-negotiable. And yet in many facilities, tampons and pads are a costly expense. These costs are a barrier to well-being and can have an even greater deleterious impact on prison outcomes. Women without this access may turn to any number of substitutes like paper towels, rags, or clothing. This raises the risks for infection and can serve as vectors for the spread of diseases among other inmates.
Simply put, something like menstrual hygiene products should never be considered a luxury. A few months ago, I wrote an essay that looked at the specific issues of women post-incarceration in the re-entry phase and raised the visibility of topics like childcare, drug and alcohol dependence, and mental health. Now we turn to the needs of women while incarcerated, specifically those that serve necessary to physical, mental, and emotional health. To get a better understanding of what it means to shoulder the cost of commodities while incarcerated, consider the math. In Louisiana, the average inmate earns between $0.04 and $1.00 per hour. The average cost of a pack of menstrual pads is prohibitively high at 8.00. This means that without a supportive family network, even the most skilled and experienced female inmate must spend several days of pay to guarantee personal comfort and avoid having to turn to more desperate alternatives. In 2017, the Federal Bureau of Prisons moved to guarantee free feminine care products. The problem: most female inmates are housed in state and local facilities. Because these deficits need to be addressed at the state-level, many states including Virginia and Colorado moved to close the gaps in coverage. Given this, I was near ecstatic to see Louisiana’s legislature move SB558, first introduced by State Senator Regina Barrow, to Governor John Bell Edwards desk. The bill once signed will now require all state and local facilities to meet the women’s hygiene needs free of charge. This means that the more than 2,000 women incarcerated in state and local facilities will not have to again experience the indignity of access to life essentials. This move will not only ensure healthier choices but will be more cost-efficient. The Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana has committed itself to finding solutions to the barriers created by the criminal justice system and as such, applaud this recent development as a huge step for gender equality and access to healthcare.