Editor’s Note: Keri Blakinger is the author of the memoir “Corrections in Ink.” She is a staff writer for The Marshall Project whose work focuses on prisons and jails. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
On the day I was arrested with a Tupperware container full of heroin in 2010, I knew almost nothing about the legal system. It was the first time I’d ever been locked up, so I had to learn the ropes from the women around me.
For the most part, they were glad to share – but I wasn’t always sure how much of what they said was just jailhouse lore. So when a couple of them griped about how the local lockup always put men’s needs first, I didn’t know whether to believe them.
But my new neighbors offered examples: The men could sign up for buzz cuts, while we had to trim each other’s hair with toenail clippers. Though we all lived in cells, they also had a lower-security dorm. They had more classes than we did. And they were allowed to have jail jobs and earn privileges.
Most importantly, they were almost never the ones who got sent to another jail when our home jail – in Tompkins County, New York – ran out of space, a transfer that usually meant a few days or weeks in solitary and sometimes months spent further from loved ones who might visit.
Still, I was skeptical. At the time, I did not understand that jails and prisons were made with men in mind – from the fit of the uniforms to the rules designed to control male social structures and violence to the medical services that consistently overlooked women’s basic needs. It is a system where women are often an afterthought. I just hadn’t realized it yet.
Then, I got my period. On the outside, I’d had a very irregular cycle due to years of eating disorders and heavy drug use, the latter of which was what landed me behind bars in the first place. But once I sobered up in the county jail, I started bleeding – and did not stop.
For roughly six weeks, I bled every day, while repeatedly asking the guards – who were mostly men and often squeamish – for tampons and then cringing as I changed them in my two-person cell, where the toilet was in full view of every passer-by walking down the hallway.
It felt like a bad place to be a woman, and a particularly bad place to be a person with a period. But I was unsure what to do. Before I got arrested, I had never really thought about how medical care worked behind bars – and I had no idea how bad it could be and often was.
Eventually, I asked the jail nurse if there was anything she could do to help. She suggested birth control, which can sometimes help regulate a person’s menstrual cycle. After a consultation and an outside medical trip – in shackles and handcuffs – to the local Planned Parenthood, I decided to try Depo-Provera, a hormonal shot taken once every 90 days, which was easier to manage in jail than a daily pill.
Minutes after I returned from the doctor’s office after getting my first dose, a male sergeant cornered me in my cell, demanding to know why I’d gone on birth control in jail – as if he were some sort of authority on women’s health. I bit my tongue and answered his questions as succinctly as possible, partly out of annoyance and partly to minimize my embarrassment at having to explain my periods as he scowled down at me and narrowed his eyes.
A few days later, the bleeding stopped. It felt like magic – until it came time for my next dose. By then, the nurse who’d suggested I get the first shot had left, and her replacement told me I could not get birth control in jail. In fact, she said the prior nurse should have never let me get it in the first place. Apparently, something as trivial as bleeding every day for weeks didn’t require any treatment.
As the hormones waned, I began bleeding again. And I kept bleeding and bleeding and bleeding. I bled almost every day for the next six months. That would have been bad enough in the free world, but behind bars it was so much worse.
In jail, having your period means begging for supplies, putting up with the uneasy jokes from male guards who handed them out, planning ahead to minimize the humiliation during regular strip searches and trying to calculate the best time to change a tampon in a cell without a guard strolling in – or a group of detained men in orange jumpsuits walking by.
For the first few months, I hoped the bleeding would stop on its own. When it didn’t, I tried putting in more requests for medical attention, sometimes drawing cartoon tombstones or dramatic bloodstains in the margins of the jail’s standard request forms, hoping my gory decorations would attract more attention. (They did not.) Eventually, the bleeding eased up just before I went to a state prison in late 2011.
At the time, I saw the whole ordeal as an example of just how bad medical care is behind bars. But looking back it seems like something more.
After I was released in 2012, I went on to become a reporter who covers prisons. As I spent more and more time studying the system from the outside, I began to understand my experience in a broader context. Though there were more than 150,000 women behind bars in America in 2020, years of research shows prisons fail them – and traumatize them in gender-specific ways.
Time and again people in women’s prisons have had to sue over issues like inadequate access to period products, overly invasive strip searches, a lack of pregnancy care, unequal access to education, fewer work release opportunities and ongoing patterns of sexual abuse by male staff.
Some of those issues are consequences of the economy of scale; because less than 10% of people in jails and prisons are women, there are fewer programs and services for them. As I’d been warned during my first days behind bars, we were an afterthought.
But even once I understood that, it took me a little longer to realize that some of those issues have nothing to do with something so benign as being an afterthought and everything to do with a fundamental refusal to let prisoners have dignity. Where I did time, sometimes that meant forcing a woman to take out her tampon during a strip search (a practice that the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Services has denied is policy), making prisoners beg to get enough menstrual supplies and toilet paper or letting people bleed for months instead of providing basic reproductive health care. Since then, New York and a handful of other jurisdictions have passed legislation requiring jails and prisons to provide tampons and maxi pads, though experts say access to period supplies is still a widespread problem – in part because some facilities aren’t consistently complying with those laws.
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In the moment, those individual acts seemed like shame-inducing one-offs. But when they happen enough, those one-offs add up to something more. Looking back, I see how the prison system weaponized our bodies to take away our dignity.
When I think about it now – a decade later – I still feel a pang in my stomach, a particular blend of shame and powerlessness I associate most with being locked up.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about that feeling a lot more. Until just a few months ago, many people didn’t believe that women and pregnant people would really lose the right to abortion, or that there would ever be serious discussion about losing access to birth control.
But these developments aren’t quite as surprising to those of my friends who, like me, have done time in women’s prisons. On some level, we already knew that reality too well: Those techniques used to strip people of their dignity have never been and were never going to be confined to the prison system alone. In the end, it’s all of a piece – how we treat people in prison is a reflection of how we are willing to treat people in the free world.