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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

What About Periods During Incarceration? A Brief History of Women’s Health in Maryland Prisons

Women’s health has been glossed over for centuries. Whether we credit advancements by the 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade, or to the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s pressing for more general womens health rights, the fight has always come from women themselves.

The fight for general inmate health has been a struggle. In the 1970s, the lack of health services was noted as a major issue by the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA invested funds into the system to address these issues and transitioned to be called the National Commission on Correctional Health (NCCHC) in order to gain a wider range of credit. While commissions such as the NCCHC made it their purpose to take strides in health care across national prison systems, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated health disparities which have already plagued our system for years. President Biden’s Build Back Better Act (BBBA) helps to lift the inmate exclusion policy, which Obama had tried to lift during his administration, allowing inmates to have access to Medicaid.

In investigating women’s health in Maryland, it is essential to note that “woman” is not an all-encompassing term. A lack of intersectionality within the early feminist movement itself did not address all women’s health, focusing on white women and excluding women of color. Women’s health has been an uphill battle. This article examines how a lack of healthcare for women in society contributes to the minimal rights granted to those who are incarcerated. Women of color are disproportionately incarcerated - and not given equal access to safe, affordable, and trustworthy healthcare.

Women’s health concerns in prison systems are multifaceted. Race, class, and gender play significant roles in who is incarcerated in the first place. Throughout the U.S. and specifically in Maryland, inequity in prison healthcare further perpetuates these inequalities.

The state of Maryland has taken legislative steps to address evolving issues of women’s health in prisons. Notably in 2014, Governor Larry Hogan approved House Bill 27, which prohibited the shackling of pregnant women. Then, in 2018, Senate Bill 598 required that menstrual hygiene products be constantly supplied to female inmates. In 2019, Maryland passed Senate Bill 809 to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for pregnant women. Critics point out–doesn’t it seem a bit strange that just in 2014, 2018, and 2019 laws like these were placed? A bit late, but what is new regarding women’s health…


Infographic describing the disproportionate rate of women of color in prisons.

In order to investigate the real implementation of legislation such as Bills 27, 598, and 809, I reached out to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS). I spoke with a member of the Nursing Department of the DPSCS who works with healthcare contractors to hire private contractors who provide healthcare to inmates. For the article’s privacy purposes, we will call them Dr. Jane. Dr. Jane explains how even when policies such as the bills listed above are passed, there is now way for offices within the DPSCS to fully audit how private contractors provide their service. Since private contractors are usually in it for the money, and since DPSCS auditing programs lack the technology and person power to thoroughly investigate, there is no way to guarantee that they complete their job fully ethically. Women’s health is complex, involving issues such as gynecological, trauma and mental illness, breast and cervical cancer, sexually transmitted infections (STI), family planning, aging and chronic disease, nutrition and diet, and pregnancy and postpartum. As Dr. Jane explains, a problem such as lack of oversight, which begins with a lack of state funding to prison services, leads to policies which are poorly implemented and simply cannot tackle all sectors of women’s health.

In fact, several articles have been released concluding that Senate Bill 598 to require menstrual hygiene products has not been implemented effectively - and in some cases, at all. Incarcerated women are still paying for tampons. Senator Susan C. Lee (D-Montgomery), sponsor of Senate Bill 598, and Robert Green, Secretary of the DSPCS, have confirmed such allegations. Kimberly Haven, a criminal justice advocate interviewed for a Global Citizen article, describes the problematic issue that women must choose between paying for necessities such as toothpaste or paying for tampons to protect against toxic shock syndrome. This issue also disproportionately impacts women of color because they are more likely to be incarcerated and thus more likely to not have access to products.

Image symbolic of period poverty.

Though the actions of individual prison systems such as that of the Maryland Correctional Institutions for Women in Jessup, MD to increase the dietary health for their inmates appear as symbols for progress, the lack of oversight and universal standards for women’s health in every facility means that women will continue to be denied their basic human rights.

America’s justice system is in–and has been for a long time–a critical need for reform, and women’s health is yet another facet of the need for justice.


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