'OITNB' Exposed The Frustrating Realties Of Getting Your Period In Prison

Here's what happens when tampons and pads are "inessential."

On Season 4 of Netflix's "Orange is the New Black," Litchfield has a tampon and maxi pad shortage -- and it's as miserable as it sounds.

The fifth episode of the hit series opens with a long line of inmates at Litchfield prison facility waiting in line for menstrual products, only to be turned away because the prison is completely out of maxi pads.

"There's a hundred new inmates, but the same budget for inessentials," explains a prison worker to one of the inmates. "You can buy tampons at commissary."

In episode 5 of "Orange is the New Black," an inmate contemplates using her sleep mask as a makeshift pad.
In episode 5 of "Orange is the New Black," an inmate contemplates using her sleep mask as a makeshift pad.
Courtesy of Netflix

The problem is, of course, that commissary tampons are $10 a box, and the inmates only make 10 cents an hour. (If they even have employment in the overcrowded prison.) The shortage in readily available menstrual products sparks a black market for tampons in the prison (with the price hitting $25 a tampon, yikes), and prompts many of the inmates to create makeshift menstrual products with eye masks, disposable medicine cups, and toilet paper.

Of course, while many of the things that go down at the fictional Litchfield would never happen in a real prison, the tampon storyline is not that far removed from the everyday reality of being a woman in prison. A 2015 study by the Correctional Association of New York revealed that 54 percent of women in prison report that they do not get enough sanitary pads a month.

In New York prison facilities, 24 pads are issued per month to each prisoner, according to the study. The pads, according to inmates, are flimsy and don't last very long.

“My period lasts seven days. . . . Sometimes I have to wear four at a time because they are so thin,” one anonymous inmate wrote in the Correctional Association of New York study.

Another added: “[R]eceiving only 24 sanitary napkins per month is not very sanitary during a menstrual cycle.”

A later scene in the "Orange is the New Black" episode depicts someone at a prison conference speaking about the affordability of menstrual cups for female inmates. In real life, while menstrual cups and panties (like Thinx) have been suggested as an alternative to traditional pads and tampons in prisons, no actual steps have been taken at this time to integrate them into the products available to inmates.

But some progress is being made. On June 21, New York City voted to pass a series of bills that will ensure women in jail facilities, homeless shelters and schools will have proper access to menstrual products.

While the new season of "OITNB" has been met with mixed reviews as well as some criticisms of its approach to race, at least it's got one thing right: Menstrual products are not "inessential" or "luxury" items. They're a basic right.

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