The Health Struggle Facing Female Inmates

November 13th 2015

Laura Donovan

The average person goes through 50 pounds of toilet paper per year, but it's a different story for female prisoners, who often lack access to the necessary amount of toilet paper. Because of menstruation and vaginal discharge, among other things, female prisoners tend to need more toilet paper than men, and it doesn't help that women also don't have proper access to feminine products in prison.

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female prisoners

Earlier this year, the Correctional Association of New York interviewed nearly 1,000 female prisoners over the course of five years and found that many of them do not receive enough toilet paper or sanitary napkins, a reality that could pose major health risks to these women.

"Women don't get enough toilet paper," Tamar Kraft-Stolar, author of the report and director of the Women in Prison Project at the Correctional Association, told the Huffington Post in February. "Women get the same amount of toilet paper as men, although biology dictates that women need more."

Chandra Bozelko, who spent more than six years at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut and has since written about her experiences for several publications, told ATTN: that she remembers the struggle of obtaining toilet paper behind bars. She explained how each cell of two people received two toilet paper rolls per week, but that the rolls were inexpensive and low quality, so "everyone knew that would never be enough for two women."

"We always had to ask for more and you could get one roll at a time when you asked for more but you had to stalk the [correctional officers] to get one," she told ATTN:. "Some guards were generous about it and would say 'take as much as you can, when you can,' but others were as stingy with the toilet paper as they were the pads which I never understood because, to be quite frank, poop is universal."

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Bozelko added that a lot of women found themselves hoarding and fighting over toilet paper due to these conditions. She explained the living conditions:

"Another problem is that because toilet paper is so scarce, some inmates would stockpile it, understandably, and then when everyone was short on supplies, guards would search 'Shake down' people's cells and see how many rolls they had and then conduct a redistribution campaign throughout the housing unit. Women would argue. Fight. Over toilet paper."

When a female prisoner runs out of toilet paper, she must be resourceful and creative. Keri Blakinger, who served more than two years in prison for possession, told Mic last year that she had to resort to other supplies when she had no toilet paper.

"I used newspaper and notebook paper to get by," Blakinger told the publication, noting that some women even used towels to wipe themselves. "There were always problems with people stealing toilet paper if you forgot to lock up your locker before leaving your cell."

Bozelko told ATTN: that she had to "drip dry" in this particular situation.

"On more than one occasion, I sat on a toilet drip-drying my privates until another inmate walked past my cell so I could yell to her and ask her to get me some toilet paper from her cell. If she was low on supplies, then sometimes she couldn't give me a roll, only some off her roll. It brought the whole Seinfeld 'can't spare a square' thing into a disgusting reality."

While prison women are welcome to purchase more toilet paper and sanitary products at the commissary, Bozelko said the commissary options were often of even lower quality than what they received by default in their cells. She also said that prison commissaries tend to be less accessible than the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black" (OINTB) portrays them to be.

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"I think OITNB has led people to believe that [the] commissary is like an open store," she said. "In most prisons, you place an order one week and you pick it up at least a week later. Sometimes [a] delivery gets delayed [even] more because of lock downs. So when people say 'why can't they buy it,' not only is there a financial problem with that for many people, there's also an access problem for everyone. I bought toilet paper and pads but if I need toilet paper today, ordering a roll this afternoon won't solve my problem."

As if lacking toilet paper access wasn't bad enough, Bozelko had an extremely hard time attending to her menstrual cycle in prison. Over the summer, she detailed this particular challenge in a piece for the Guardian, saying she and the other female inmates were given around 10 menstrual pads each per month. It's common for women to use several menstrual pads per day, especially on heavier cycle days, so this policy forces female prisoners to wear a pad longer than they should.

She wrote:

"[The situation allowed] for only one change a day in an average five-day monthly cycle. The lack of sanitary supplies is so bad in women’s prisons that I have seen pads fly right out of an inmate’s pants: prison maxi pads don’t have wings and they have only average adhesive so, when a woman wears the same pad for several days because she can’t find a fresh one, that pad often fails to stick to her underwear and the pad falls out. It’s disgusting but it’s true."

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In 2014, the ACLU of Michigan represented eight female inmates of the Muskegon County Jail in a lawsuit surrounding this particular problem. The women claimed they had no access to clean underwear, feminine products, and toilet paper, forcing some of them to "bleed through their clothes."

“From health hazards to dehumanizing, unconstitutional procedures, conditions at the Muskegon County Jail are utterly deplorable,” Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Michigan, said in a statement at the time. “Muskegon County has abdicated its constitutional duty to ensure conditions of confinement at the jail just and consistent with health, safety, and human dignity.”