When she started her sentence in 2016, she received one package of 12 thin menstrual pads per month, which isn’t nearly enough for most women. But after the policy change, Williams and other women incarcerated in state prisons were allowed 36, and promised more if the need arose.
So, when Williams was released at the end of 2018, she left with a sense of hope that state prisons had solved the long-lingering problem of inadequate menstruation supplies.
That hope vanished a few months later, when she started receiving emails from women who were still incarcerated, telling her that they were still being denied access to pads, tampons and toilet paper, and were forced to work or barter to afford an adequate supply of sanitary products.
But Williams, who now works as an organizer for the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is feeling positive about the situation again after Governor Doug Ducey signed the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” into law at the end of June. The law requires that women serving time in Arizona prisons have access to all menstrual products free of charge.
Williams experienced shortages firsthand and now acts as an advocate for the women still incarcerated.
Though the passage of the act serves as a win for prisoners, advocates for incarcerated women say the time it took to make access to a basic necessity possible highlights a pattern of failure in the state prison system and has left some women humiliated.
“It’s something you carry with you,” Williams said.
Sponsored by Democratic state Senator Tony Navarrete, the Dignity act requires state prisons to provide unlimited tampons, pads, menstrual sponges, and cups to inmates, and bars the prison from charging for the products.
The change in state law comes four years after a federal law required the same of federal prisons, and three years after a bill sponsored by state Representative Athena Salman, also a Democrat, brought on internal change at the state DOC in 2018.
The federal Office on Women’s Health recommends a change of pad or tampon every few hours, equating to around three to five pads per day.
Before 2018, a package of 10 to 12 generic pads per month per inmate was standard, according to previous reports. Additional pads were available free of charge but inmates were only allowed 24 in their possession at any given time.
Tampons and other menstrual products were available for sale in the commissary. A box of tampons cost around $4 in Perryville commissary according to previous reports. Inmates in Arizona who are allowed to work make anywhere from 15 to 50 cents an hour, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Before her stint in 2018, Williams had been in and out of Perryville since 2013 for minor crimes. During an intake process in 2013, she was housed next to a woman who was on her period.
Her neighbor had used all her pads and borrowed from others but it wasn’t enough. She bled out onto her jumpsuit and was made to wear her stained clothes to the cafeteria to eat with the rest of the inmates.
“it just takes away any sort of dignity that these women have,” Williams said.
She remembers women in the yard cleaning other inmates' shoes, rolling their cigarettes and cleaning their bunks in exchange for pads.
Williams said responses from guards can deter women from asking for more products.
“I've had officers throw it on my bed when I asked for it like I was an inconvenience,” Williams said. “[Inmates] are made to feel like less than human when they have to ask for it.”
As of June, the DOC reported housing 3,386 women at Perryville state prison in Goodyear, and one woman in Florence’s Lewis prison (which includes the state’s death row)..
report on incarceration trends in Arizona by Vera Institute of Justice, and eight-fold nationally in the same time period.
Ballooning populations in women’s prisons prompted the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to issue a memo in August 2017 requiring federal prisons to make two sizes of tampons, maxi pads, and panty liners available to incarcerated women free of charge.
Though the memo stirred nationwide change, state prisons and jails slipped through.
Salman learned of the conditions for women in Arizona state prisons in early 2018, leading her to sponsor House Bill 2222, which would have provided for free, unlimited feminine hygiene products. She also introduced an earlier version of the Dignity act the same year.
Her efforts attracted national and local attention and put conditions in Perryville under scrutiny.
HB 2222 narrowly passed through the Committee on Military, Veterans and Regulatory Affairs in a 5-4 vote but ultimately ended up referred to the DOC to be worked out internally.
Then-director Charles Ryan issued an order on March 1, 2018, that upped the number of pads per month to 36 and included tampons. Additional products were still available through the commissary.
“The goal was always to get this protection among other protections for incarcerated women codified into law,” Salman said. “It really should not come at the whim of an agency director or governor that thinks this is important or not important.”
Arizona state prisons ended up in the spotlight again by the end of 2018 when two Perryville inmates sent letters to the press detailing accounts of guards withholding toilet paper and pads and forcing inmates to use shirts and washrags to get by.
In late 2019, more inmates wrote to National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ (91.5 FM) claiming guards continued to withhold toilet paper and pads. And the onslaught of the pandemic revealed more problems with basic hygiene products provided at prisons. One inmate revealed in an email that it was necessary to use personal shampoo, body wash, and soap to sanitize the cells.
When Navarrette introduced legislation relevant to prisoners’ rights in the 2021 legislative session, Salman worked with her fellow legislator to revive the Dignity act. Aside from free menstrual products, the act also includes protections for pregnant inmates like banning handcuffs or shackles for the duration of a pregnancy and allowing mothers more time with their child after their birth.
Advocates celebrate the victory but believe it’s a small success. Many are hesitant to trust the new rules.
“I do not think it will come without attempts to repeal [the Dignity act], or to weaken the force of the law that we were able to get established,” Salman said.
Williams, for one, continues to stay connected with at least 50 women still incarcerated.
“I would really like to hope that we don't have that problem again because now it is law,” Williams said. “But the history of the Department of Corrections and the state of Arizona tells me that we have to keep a close eye on them.”
The Arizona DOC did not respond to a request for comment.
[Correction: The years of Kara Williams incarcerations were changed after publication based on further information from Williams.]