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New Federal Tampons Rule Follows States and Cities' Flow

A federal memo calls for feminine hygiene products to be free for inmates, energizing a movement that began in state prisons and local jails.

Female inmates in their cell.
Female inmates in their cell at a state prison in Utah.
(AP/Rick Bowmer)
While traditionally a subject discussed in hushed tones, tampons have become an issue talked about in public by politicians and policymakers alike.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons issued a recommendation for federal prisons to start providing feminine hygiene products for free to the nation's 13,000 female inmates in federal penitentiaries. Advocates of the recommendation say it will stop women from having to choose between spending money on tampons and pads and spending money on phone calls to their families. 

"Right now, it’s just words on paper, and it’s only as useful as how strictly it’s enforced," says Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, an attorney with an upcoming book about menstrual equity. "However, what’s influential about this guidance is that it’s the largest governmental body to weigh in on this issue."

Several state, city and county government bodies have been working to achieve "menstrual equity." It's a new movement to make feminine hygiene products accessible to everyone who needs them. Advocates argue they're a necessity, not a luxury, and it's time for governments to treat them as such. 

The law with the biggest impact, according to Weiss-Wolf, is in New York City. There, the city council passed a law to offer feminine hygiene products for free in jails, public school bathrooms and homeless shelters. (For more on the issue of menstruating while homeless, click here.)

Similarly, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion earlier this year that requires pads and tampons to be provided to girls in juvenile detention. Previously, tampons weren't allowed for fear of Toxic Shock Syndrome -- a serious but rare infection caused by leaving them in too long. And the pads that were provided were notoriously poor in quality, the LAist reported

“Treating girls with dignity better enables them to focus on their education, self-sufficiency and rehabilitation,” the motion reads

In Colorado last year, legislators added an amendment to the state budget that gives free pads and tampons to women in the state’s prisons. It’ll cost the state $40,000 -- out of an overall budget of $26.7 billion. Before the new funding, women had to prove they needed a sanitary pad, or they could buy a box of tampons for $7 in the prison’s commissary. 

“We need to make sure people under the supervision of the state -- regardless of why they’re there -- are treated humanely,” says state Rep. Leslie Herod, who fought for the amendment.

Herod initially asked the state’s Department of Corrections "to be a partner" and start offering the products for free. But, she says, it declined her request, so she decided to go through the state budget. It is unclear, however, if it'll become a regular part of the state's budget in the years to come.

In terms of achieving menstrual equity, removing the sales tax on pads and tampons has been the most popular reform. This past year, four states -- Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and New York -- passed legislation to get rid of the "tampon tax," bringing the number of states that don’t tax menstrual products to 14. Before the movement started to take off in late 2015, five states -- Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- already had such a law on the books, and five other states -- Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon -- simply don't have a sales tax on anything. 

The federal memo from the Bureau of Prisons is interesting, menstrual equity advocates say, because it’s coming from the Department of Justice, which is led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a politician with a conservative track record on women’s health. Weiss-Wolf is optimistic that will help make this more of a bipartisan issue.

The memo, Weiss-Wolf says, "gives Republicans cover to be O.K. with it. When they see other Republicans stepping out, they will too."

But at the state level, policymakers don't always vote along party lines on this. It's largely a liberal cause -- with exception: California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, vetoed a bill to remove the tampon tax, saying "tax breaks are the same as new spending." In Florida, the lawmaker who pushed for the tax exemption is a Republican.

As for the politicians who still find the topic of menstruation squeamish, Herod hopes that means "then they won’t fight about it."

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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