DOC stopped providing tampons to detainees – despite 2016 law mandating it

The Department of Correction has a problem with menstruation, amid fears that tampons will be used to smoke drugs and menstrual cups will be used for “splashings.”

Council Member Amanda Farías holds up the sign-on letter for the Menstrual Equity bills package.

Council Member Amanda Farías holds up the sign-on letter for the Menstrual Equity bills package. Office of Council Member Amanda Farías

During a City Council hearing on Monday, a top New York City Department of Correction official admitted that it stopped distributing free tampons to people in custody – despite a 2016 law requiring the department to distribute free tampons and sanitary pads to people in city jails.

The hearing before the Committee on Women and Gender Equity concerned the “Menstrual Equity bill package,” a group of 10 Council bills that would provide increased access to menstrual products in schools, jails and other city facilities. The legislative bundle was floated by Council Member Amanda Farías, the co-chair of the City Council Women’s Caucus who sponsored two of the ten bills and co-sponsored five more. It’s intended to build on and improve local laws passed in 2016 by the de Blasio administration, which mandated that free sanitary pads and tampons be provided in schools, shelters and city jails. 

“The Menstrual Equity bill package builds off of the accomplishments the women of the City Council achieved in 2016,” she told City & State. “These bills are an important recommitment to the issue in a time when States across the nation continue to ban even the discussion of a period.”

Farías said that gathering support for the package required unconventional methods in the digital era of advocacy. “I would take my clip-board filled with copies of my legislative sponsorship sheets with me to City Hall and pitch my bills to other Council members in person and try to get them to sign-on to my legislative priorities right then and there,” she said. “I would have my staff follow up on the back end with the electronic filings and emails…I found it a much more effective and efficient way to get things done.” This kind of personal interaction paid off: her two bills have attracted a remarkable 37 and 38 co-sponsors, respectively.

DOC’s menstruation problem

Two of the bills in the package would affect the DOC. Int. 1059 would include menstrual cups in the definition of “feminine hygiene products,” which means DOC would have to distribute free menstrual cups to incarcerated people along with tampons and pads. Int. 1057 would require the department to produce an annual report on its distribution of feminine hygiene products during the preceding 12 months.

Chelsea Chard, a senior policy analyst at DOC, told the Council that the department objected to Int. 1057 because tracking the exact number of pads and tampons requested by detainees “would require taking the free distribution of products out of the housing units.” However, the legislation does not actually prohibit the free distribution of products; it only asks the DOC to track how many requests for products there are and how they are fulfilled.

During her testimony in front of the committee on Monday, DOC Chief of Staff Kat Thomson admitted that the department stopped distributing tampons to people in its custody in 2021 – despite a 2016 law explicitly requiring it to do so. Thomson cited a loophole in the law: “the history of tampon availability is contingent on security. The option became available again in 2023 – tampons weren’t available and now tampons are available in the housing areas.”

What specific security concerns justified DOC’s refusal to provide detainees with free tampons? According to Thomson, DOC was concerned that tampons would be used to smuggle contraband and that people were using tampon applicators “to smoke drugs” and tampon strings “to light drugs.” She  then requested that the conversation be continued “off-line.”

These serious security concerns led DOC to stop distributing free tampons to people in custody, though they remained available for purchase in the Rikers Island commissary. When Council Member Tiffany Cabán asked how much tampons cost to purchase from the commissary, Thomson reported that a single box of 40-count Playtex regular tampons costs $15.66. (Those on the outside can purchase the same box for $9.89 at Amazon.) Cabán followed up by asking what the average wage was on Rikers for people working in its custody, and Thomson replied that the average wage was $0.55/hr to $1.55/hr. “The fact that incarcerated people are denied that option (of free tampons) or have to work 15 hours to afford a box of tampons is frustrating,” Cabán said. 

A DOC spokesperson later confirmed to City & State that the distribution of free tampons in DOC facilities was stopped in 2021 and only resumed this week. 

Union fears

Menstruation has always been a taboo subject – the word “taboo” even derives from the Polynesian word “tapua,” which has been translated as “menstrual blood” – and some correction officers seem disgusted by the idea of providing reusable menstrual cups to people in custody, which Int. 1059 would require.

One corrections union outright refused to discuss the legislation with City & State. Another, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, suggested that the menstrual cups could pose a safety risk – to correction officers. “These cups could potentially be used to splash our officers or even other inmates with bodily fluids at a time when splashing incidents continue to be a major safety issue in our jails,” COBA president Benny Boscio said in a written statement sent from his public relations manager. “They could also be used to stash drugs and other contraband. Like most legislation coming out of the city council, we were never asked for our input on this critical issue, yet this legislation will have major safety ramifications for everyone in our jails.”  

The concern is not entirely unfounded. There are people in the jails known as “bomb-makers” who specialize in putting body fluids in bottles and stashing them in hiding places to let them ripen. These “grenades” are then sold or traded for other goods or favors and used to target particularly abusive COs. In some cases, individuals also just fling their own feces and urine at COs, too. The New York City Board of Correction found that in 2017, there were a total of 1,335 splashing incidents committed by 744 unique individuals. 

But advocates say there’s little evidence that allowing people in custody access to menstrual cups would increase the number of splashing incidents. “The Department of Correction should not be denying access based on unproven theories,” Miriam Vishniac of the Prison Flow Project told City & State. “There is no evidence that access to menstrual cups causes more incidents of throwing body fluids – people can do that with or without these items.”

Former Maine state Sen. Susan Deschambault, who spent 40 years as a corrections professional before entering politics and then sponsored a bill requiring the distribution of menstrual products to people in custody, agreed. “As far as I know we haven’t had one incident of a woman using a menstrual cup to splash a guard or another person in custody,” she said.  

During Monday’s hearing, DOC staff were careful to not repeat the unions’ unfounded concerns about the menstrual cups, choosing to argue instead that sanitary conditions preclude their use in DOC facilities. Chelsea Chard, the policy analyst, reported that most of the bathroom facilities are group facilities without a private place to clean menstrual cups. Thomson, the DOC chief of staff, said that she was concerned about lack of boiling water on the units on Rosie’s to sanitize menstrual cups. But Council members pointed out that although it is recommended to clean silicone menstrual cups in boiling water, it is not strictly necessary. Thomson was not convinced. “This would obviously require discussions with the Deputy Commissioner of Security for security concerns,” she said. “We would be happy to discuss those concerns with you… offline.”

Expensive maxi pads

The DOC provided data on the types of menstrual products currently distributed and procurement costs. Thomson said that while the department has over 250,000 pads currently stocked in its warehouse, in 2021 it spent $20,000 on menstrual products and distributed 706 pads, averaging $28.33 per pad distributed. In 2022 it spent $51,000 distributing 555 pads, averaging $91.89 per pad distributed.  In 2023, to date, DOC has spent $31,300 distributing about 700 pads and 250 tampons, averaging $32.95 for each single product distributed.  In total, DOC has spent $102,300 on menstrual products and distributed 2,011 products since 2020 – which works out to an average of $50.87 per individual period product distributed to people in its jails. When asked on average what it spends per pad, the NYC Department of CItywide Administrative Services reported it spent just $0.07 cents per pad.

Thomson noted during the hearing that DOC only distributes Always size 5 heavy pads and Tampax regular tampons for free, but that Playtex regular tampons  and Stayfree regular maxi pads are available at the commissary for purchase.

Karen Dudley-Culbreath of the Period Project told City & State that having limited types of products, may require menstruators to start using products that they are unfamiliar with and could use incorrectly. “Menstruators are incarcerated to serve a term of rehabilitation, not to develop a medical or mental health condition,” she wrote. “The availability of menstrual cups, pads, and tampons provides DIGNITY in a difficult situation.”

“Women continue to suffer deep neglect behind bars and a resoundingly clear example of this is DOC’s admission of its lack of distribution of menstrual products,” Serena Martin-Liguori, New Hour executive director, told City & State. “It takes so little effort to afford women access to tampons and yet even this need went largely overlooked for years by DOCS. Leaving DOC to the task of care, custody and control seems very much beyond their capacity, especially when it means support for women.”

The daily census provided by NYC Open data reflects that there are currently 409 women, girls and gender non conforming people in DOC facilities.  If the DOC has only distributed 250 tampons so far this year beginning this week, that's a little more than half a tampon per person.