A memo, issued by the bureau this month, requires all federal facilities that house female inmates to make two sizes of tampons and maxi pads available, in addition to panty liners.
"Wardens have the responsibility to ensure female hygiene products such as tampons or pads are made available for free in sufficient frequency and number," Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Justin Long wrote in an email. "Prior to the (memo), the type of products provided was not consistent, and varied by institution."
For Andrea James, 52, a former attorney and founder of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the memo was welcome news.
"It's huge, what the Bureau of Prisons has done," James said. "This issue has always been, across the board, an issue all incarcerated women were dealing with."
James served 18 months in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in 2010 and 2011. She recalled that during her time in prison, she and her fellow inmates had limited options.
"We had one (type of) very inadequate sanitary pad," she said.
While tampons or other size pads could be purchased, it put undue financial strain on the inmates, James said.
"We were paid 12 cents an hour," she said, and the money could be used for other purposes, like phone calls.
"That's the choice. Do I buy the tampons or do I call my children?"
The bureau's policy memo comes a month after Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin and Kamala Harris introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act
. If passed, the law will require several reform measures in federal prisons, including an overhaul of visitation policies, a ban on shackling pregnant inmates or keeping them in solitary confinement, and a ban on charging inmates for phone calls. It would also require that multiple sizes of tampons, pads and liners be made available to female inmates for free.
Long said the proposed law had nothing to do with this month's memo.
"This memorandum was in the planning process well before any legislative proposals," he said.
In a statement, Harris said she applauded the memorandum, adding, "too many women reside in prison and jail facilities that don't support basic hygiene or reproductive health, and that's just not right."
Warren characterized the policy as a step in the right direction.
"I'm glad the BOP has adopted one feature of our Dignity for Incarcerated Women bill, but these women need more help to deal with other sky-high fees, restrictions on visits with family members, and access to humane health care," Warren said in a statement. "Respecting the basic dignity of these women and helping them maintain family ties will make their return to their communities safer and stronger."
The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.