JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The state is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on feminine hygiene products for incarcerated women after a survey showed a good portion of the women behind bars were using homemade products.
Before feminine hygiene products were provided for free at Missouri prisons, roughly 80% of incarcerated women reported they were using homemade tampons and pads, leading to infections After signing the budget into law Friday, Gov. Mike Parson gave the okay for the state to keep providing these products.
“It’s really not that much to improve women’s health and give them dignity,” Liza Weiss, executive director of the Missouri Appleseed Foundation, said. “It’s really just a healthcare product, and it’s something that shouldn’t be taboo. It’s something all women need, and it’s important.”
For more than four years, Missouri’s two women’s prisons have been offering feminine hygiene products for free. A big reason why the state stopped charging for tampons and pads is because of the Missouri Appleseed Foundation.
“If they [incarcerated women] wanted to use tampons, they would have to buy them at the commissary for almost $6 a box, and most incarcerated women only make about $8 a month,” Weiss said. “So, if they wanted any extra money to call home to talk to their kids, it really wasn’t a possibility.”
In 2018, Weiss surveyed nearly 100 incarcerated women, prison nurses, and caseworkers. According to the report, roughly 60% of the women who were surveyed didn’t have enough money to buy tampons at the commissary.
“What we found is that over 80% of the women were making homemade tampons because all they were given access to was this ineffective, one-size pad,” Weiss said. “We also found that 22% of the women we surveyed reported having an infection over the past six months.”
This research led to the Missouri Department of Corrections changing its policy, Weiss said. After the survey in 2018, the Department of Corrections asked state lawmakers to allocate funding to help them with the effort. Then, in 2019, the General Assembly approved roughly $230,000 to provide free quality pads and tampons in the two women’s state prisons in Chillicothe and Vandalia.
“Before they were being provided access to help them manage their menstruation, many women would report turning down visits with family members because they were embarassed of what happened,” Weiss said. “When we got these research results, it really got everyone’s attention.”
Back in 2018, President Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, requiring federal prisons to provide free tampons and pads that met industry standards.
In 2021, a group of bipartisan lawmakers were able to get legislation to the governor’s desk to require local jails to also provide the products for free. Parson signing the budget into law Friday, approving $240,000 for counties and cities to pay for the quality feminine hygiene products.
“There is a black market for these items and the homemade products, they would just use socks or materials from the ineffective pads to create these homemade products and it’s a humanity issue,” Weiss said.
This past spring, Missouri Appleseed revisited their research to find out what has changed in Missouri prisons since the products have been offered for free. Weiss said the surveys showed that about 10.3% of the incarcerated women had used homemade tampons since the DOC started supplying them for free. That’s down from 80% in 2018. The report also showed that only 10% of women had vaginal infections within the last six months while in prison, compared to 22% in 2018.
“Women report they are not limited, the items are just kept in the bathroom, and they can go and get them when they want to or they are in community areas or residential wings where they can take as many as they would like,” Weiss said.
Missouri Appleseed also helped passed legislation in 2022 to create a nursery at the women’s state prison in Vandalia. This would allow infants to stay with their incarcerated mother for up to 18 months, but it would only be offered to mothers with non-serious crimes.
“Currently, babies are separated from their mothers just hours after birth and this allows women and babies to stay together,” Weiss said. “Often times, children can end up in the foster care system.”
Last year, the state allocated $14.5 million for the prison nursery program and another $16 million this year. Construction on the nursery is set to be complete of July 2025.
In 2021, the Department of Corrections said 25 women gave birth while inside a Missouri correctional facility. Under current regulations, the mom gets to hod the baby for the first 24 hours of its life and then the child is taken away and either goes home with another family member or gets put into the foster care system.
Weiss said the foundation’s goal for the next legislative session is to work with DOC to make sure incarcerated pregnant women are receiving the nutrients she needs like increased calories, necessary vitamins and healthy foods.