America doesn’t treat the people in its prisons like people, and everyone’s losing

We don’t spend too much time thinking about women in prison. We especially don’t spend too much time thinking about whether those women are able to meet their basic hygiene necessities. And when we hear that this isn’t the case — women are in fact being systematically dehumanized in our prison systems via the withholding of hygiene products — many shrug their shoulders. Or, worse yet, tell themselves that they have it coming.

York Correctional Institute in Conneticut gives bunkmates five pads a week to split, which works out to ten per month per inmate. This is nowhere near adequate, and can lead to women being forced to wear the same pad for consecutive days (for most women, they need to be replaced after mere hours). It shouldn’t be necessary to explain why this is a serious health hazard. The health of prisoners should be taken seriously, and bodily functions do not miraculously change or cease depending on what suits the prison’s policy. Some prisons have systems where women can buy their hygiene products, but:

… most inmates can’t afford to buy pads ($2.63 for a 24-pack) when they’re spending the 75 cents they earn for a day’s work on other necessities like deodorant (which costs $1.93, three days’ pay), toothpaste ($1.50, two days’ pay), or food that’s more edible than what’s offered in the dining hall. At some prisons, prices are higher, with eight tampons costing $4.23 thanks to a privatized commissary. But even when inmates have the money to buy feminine hygiene supplies, commissaries routinely understock and women are left waiting for a week or two, rendering the pads irrelevant for another month. Toilet paper is also rationed, so crafting homemade toilet-paper pads means forgoing wiping.

Forcing prisoners to scrimp and save to afford the tools to meet their basic human needs, and routinely failing to meet the demand, is more than cruel and unnecessary. It sets them up for humiliating failure. As Ronen continues:

One among many problems listed was the jail’s refusal to provide adequate feminine hygiene products, forcing inmates to routinely bleed through their clothes and not providing them a change of clothes until laundry day. When one inmate requested supplies, an officer told her she was “shit out of luck” and “better not bleed on the floor.

Treating female sanitary products as if they are luxuries, or not necessary, is an outrage. No, they haven’t existed for all of human history and aren’t crucial to survival, but neither are clothes, beds or glasses. You would be in serious trouble for denying prisoners any of those.

criminal prison orange jumpsuit jail prisoner convict

Criminal via Shutterstock

Female hygiene products aren’t the only necessities being denied to prisoners. At a Kalamazoo County Jail in Michigan, prisoners were not given toilet paper, forcing male inmates to, in the words of one officer, “wipe it with your hands and quit crying. It could be worse.”

Sure, it could be worse. Anything in any situation could be worse. The fact that their treatment could be somehow more horrible doesn’t make its horribleness acceptable. As Timothy Hamilton, one of the prisoners involved, described:

I keep playing it over and over in my head…now I buy too much tissue so I won’t run out at home. Now mentally I have fear of running out..the officers got to the point they were like, ‘the whole (expletive) jail is out so quit (expletive) asking.”

What’s more, it’s not as if the officers were merely frustrated at their institution’s lack of resources. As if they were pulled straight from Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment, they enjoyed humiliating the inmates. As Hamilton continued, “the officers were making jokes, ‘Wipe your ass like monkeys do.’ That was very painful to hear.”

Last time I checked, judges weren’t in the habit of tacking on dehumanizing penalties in addition to prison sentences. What’s more, the dehumanization is worse than counterproductive. America has the largest prison population in the world. It is bizarre and self-defeating to treat these prisoners like animals and expect them to function as people when they reenter society.

Countries with the best rehabilitation rates, such as Norway, are countries that let prisoners keep their dignity. They are also, not coincidentally, the countries that don’t privatize their prison systems such that toilet paper — to say nothing of rehabilitated prisoners that don’t wind up back behind bars — are expenditures that put dents in quarterly earnings.

Nothing turns a non-violent offender into a violent offender faster than sending them to prison, and the subhuman conditions at American prisons are one of the reasons why. If we’re serious when we say that we want to rehabilitate the people in our prisons, we need to treat them like people while they’re there.


Holly Blackler is a University student in the final year of her degree, which is a double major in Political Science and Philosophy with a minor in Media. She writes on a variety of things, but focuses on social issues and international events.

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