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Opinion: Missouri needs to bring its jails into line with Trump’s First Step Act

  

In 2019, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that led to great strides in criminal justice reform. One of the many positive and humane reforms of the First Step Act was requiring all federal prisons to provide women inmates with free and effective feminine hygiene products.  

During that same year, the Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) adopted an internal policy to begin providing free pads to women in their state prisons. The Republican-led Missouri House and Senate appropriated funds for the DOC to provide practical versions of these essential health care products.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot

Organizations such as the American Conservative Union (ACU) started a campaign to improve the health and dignity of incarcerated women. Over the last several years, ACU has successfully helped to pass hygiene legislation in almost 20 states.

Currently, local jails in Missouri are not required to provide feminine hygiene products to the women in their custody. Some jails, such as the Saline County Jail, provide free effective products anyway; however, many jails across our state do not. 

Both research and experience have shown that providing incarcerated women with feminine hygiene products benefits women’s health. When prisons or jails do not provide free, effective feminine hygiene products, women are forced to make their own products out of the materials available to them, placing their health at risk.

In 2018, a nonprofit called Missouri Appleseed surveyed women in Missouri prisons about their feminine hygiene before free tampons and pads were provided to them. The results showed that when women are not provided effective products, they make their own, putting themselves at risk. More than 8 in 10 women have used homemade tampons fashioned out of the materials available to them in the prison. More than 20 percent of the women who have used homemade tampons reported suffering from a vaginal infection in the past six months after entering prison, whereas women who had not used homemade tampons did not report having had a vaginal infection. 

Incidents in other states suggest that homemade tampon use due to inadequate hygiene products can have dire consequences. In 2015, a woman named Kimberly Haven who was incarcerated in Maryland needed an emergency hysterectomy after developing toxic shock from homemade tampon use.

Jails that do not provide women with free feminine hygiene products require inmates to purchase these necessary products from the jail. The cost of feminine hygiene products in prisons and jails is often above the market rate in the community. Many women in jails are indigent and cannot afford to post bail. When women do have money available, they often use the money to call their children. Phone calls from jail are often very expensive — forcing women to choose between contact with their family or feminine hygiene products.

Missouri can and should bring our jail policies into line with President Trump’s First Step Act by allocating $113,574 from General Revenue to county jails. This is the same amount of money the state currently appropriates to the Missouri Department of Corrections for the women serving sentences in prison. By doubling the appropriation, women held in jails will be able to maintain their health with dignity. 

To that end, I plan on filing legislation to accomplish just that. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue — it is an issue of human decency.