Periods in prison: The monthly struggle for sanitary products

'That's Not
How It Works
Around Here'

When free-bleeding ain't free.

Illustrations by Blacksneakers.

June 28, 2023


It was "that" time of the month for me, and I rocked back and forth on my thin, plastic mat, anxiously anticipating the pop of the lock signaling the start of the race.

Overpopulation at Franklin County Jail in Columbus, Ohio, had guards throwing mattresses in between bunks and on the concrete floor—anywhere there was space. For months, after navigating the courts and fighting our cases, we would return to the jail's small dorm and pile on top of each other. 

I don't know the science behind it, but it never failed. Most of us started our periods at the same time. I loathed my body for its need to function.

"Just plow through 'em. You got this," I told myself, mentally preparing for the morning supply drop—my one chance for a pad. The jail allowed us a ration of 10 pads per day for a dorm of 25 to 30 people. 

Distribution was not regulated, so we were all preparing to pounce on the bag as if the keys to our freedom were inside. 

If the dominant personalities got a hold of the supplies, our necessities became a tool for control. We would be forced to succumb to conflict. I often ran to be first only to be knocked back and shoved away, reaching the bag a second too late.

Pop. The clank of the iron echoed through the dorm, signaling our start.

Periods in prison: The monthly struggle for sanitary products

I jumped up, sprinting through the bed area toward the bag.  I had to focus.  My vision tunneled to the bag. I pressed forward into the huddle, reaching my hand toward the pile. I was so close… I stretched a little, feeling for my pad. I almost had it. I felt the thin, soft plastic on my fingertips. I pushed into the huddle harder, reaching, stretching until I had possession of a sanitary napkin—a basic necessity. I felt relief wash over me as I closed my palm and held the pad in a death grip.

Walking away from the chaos, tears of appreciation swelled up in my eyes.  This meant that I wouldn't have to give up my dignity, that my shame wouldn't run down my leg, at least for a few hours.

How did life come to this? 

Many doors keep the hundreds of thousands of women incarcerated in the United States, locked inside the criminal justice system. At 22 years old, I found myself staring at one. 

During my time in Franklin County Jail, I've watched girls detox, shake, quiver, and go into compulsions, losing control of body functions and puking on themselves, only to be denied clean clothes with the slam of a door simply because "That's not how it works around here!"

See also:

Many people in our society believe that only "bad" women commit crime. These same people would argue I did something to deserve the inhumane treatment I endured during my stay in Franklin County. I deserved to be made to fight other women in order to avoid bleeding all over myself. I deserved to be forcefully exposed and stripped naked in front of a whole dorm just to take a shower. I deserved to be trapped in a dorm 24 hours a day under a merciless fluorescent light. It never went off. Not once during my whole 463-day-long pretrial detainment in Franklin County.

It has been almost nine years since I left county jail and was transferred to the Ohio Reformatory for Women. I have relentlessly pursued true courageous self-change every day since then. I do that in spite of—not because of—the dehumanization I face. I have been belittled so deeply I almost believe I deserve this, but I DO NOT. The only thing bad around here is this system has no idea how to meet the needs of people who menstruate in prison. 

Please help me make them listen because "how it works around here" is not working. And it never will.

Heather Jarvis dedicates her life to helping others pursue true courageous self-change through her writing, speaking, social work, and empowered storytelling. She strongly believes if the truth hurts others, yourself, or the world—change it.

In 2019 Heather won the Fielding A. Dawson Prize in nonfiction in PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest. While behind bars, her work appeared on The Crime Report, The Iowa Review Prison Writing Project, The Journal of Women and Criminal Justice, Scalawag Magazine, and she is securing another award in the PEN America's contest in the memoir category. She is also a regular contributor for the Prison Journalism Project.