It says something profoundly unsavory for Florida when the state Legislature needs to pass a law so women in prison can get something as basic and essential as a tampon.
How about we make the first order of business for the new surgeon general explaining the function of a woman's anatomy to every official and jug-headed guard at every women's prison in the state.
Certainly legislators "debating" the "Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act" get it. Republicans, Democrats, they're all on board with the Act. Reports News Service of Florida's Dara Kam, House Bill 49 and Senate Bill 332 have received unanimous support in three subcommittees and committees in the House and Senate.
The state Department of Corrections “is committed to ensuring the dignity and fair treatment of all incarcerated individuals in Florida,” spokeswoman Michelle Glady told NSF.
“Our current policy and practices provides feminine hygiene products at no cost to inmates, necessary health and comfort items, and has search policies in place that are committed to ensuring inmates' privacy in respect to their gender,” Glady said.
So why do we need a Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act?
Because in Florida's male-dominated prison culture, either the policy hasn't filtered down to prison guards, or in many instances Neanderthal guards are choosing to use the denial of sanitary supplies as a tool for behavioral correction. And they're getting away with it.
Maybe the Act -- if prison officials choose to enforce the law when (not if) it's passed, will begin to change that culture. Correctional facilities will be required to provide incarcerated women with necessary feminine hygiene products, including tampons, sanitary napkins, toothpaste, and no-lye soap at no additional cost. They would have to restrict male correctional employees who work in women's facilities from conducting pat-down searches or body cavity searches on incarcerated women or entering spaces where incarcerated women are in a state of undress.
Menstruation is inarguably a natural part of a woman’s health cycle. Former state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, D-Wellington, made that point demonstrably two years ago in her successful campaign to see the so-called "Tampon tax" eliminated in Florida. (Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Sarasota, sponsored the bill in upper chamber.)
Actually, HB 63 made Florida the 13th state (plus the District of Columbia) to denounce the previously held statute that feminine hygiene products like tampons and pads are "luxury items" and therefore taxable. The bill was ultimately a huge bipartisan victory in Florida's confusing political landscape and is saving consumers $11 million a year.
Unfortunately, prison guards must have missed the inherent dignity in that bill.
Meanwhile, back at the Capitol, Kam tells the story of Valencia Gunder, who is walking the halls ahead of Tuesday's 1 p.m. House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, freely talking about menstruation. Gunder is a former inmate, now the criminal justice program manager for the group New Florida Majority.
“We are not asking for a luxury state of Florida," Gunder said during a recent press conference. "We are asking for bare necessities. Women should not have to use extra pairs of socks as pads. Women should not have to use all of their tissues. Women should not have to be embarrassed to ask for extra sanitary napkins and tampons."
Another consideration: Every month -- and often a "period" isn't clearly a month, it can come anywhere from 2 to 7 weeks -- women who resort to unhygienic items during the week of their menstrual cycle are prone to serious infections.
Florida women, actually all women, owe Democratic bill sponsors Shevrin Jones in the House and Jason Pizzo in the Senate a genuine debt.
(Editor's note: The DOC's Glady emailed the following comment at 10:06 a.m.: "This headline couldn't be more false. Correctional officers DO NOT withhold sanitary products from inmates as punishment. The Department provides ample sanitary products to incarcerated women and they can ask for more at any time. Tampons are not currently provided, and that is simply due to cost. The Department is actively working at a solution to provide these at no charge. Our officers are not Neanderthals or jug-headed, they are men and women who choose every day to do a difficult job to uphold public safety in Florida.")
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith