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Some Missouri jails are lifting fees for tampons and pads thanks to new state funding

Boxes of tampons are displayed in a pharmacy, Monday, March 7, 2016, in New York.
Mark Lennihan
Associated Press
Due to funding lawmakers included in the state budget this year, jails across Missouri are now being issued payments to reimburse them for the purchase of feminine hygiene products.

While many local jails already offered feminine hygiene products for free, at some, cost was a barrier. State funding in the latest budget aimed to eliminate that.

When people are checked into the Clay County Detention Center, they all have to pay an intake fee of $8. But for women on their periods, entering the jail used to cost them extra.

Incarcerated women at the facility used to be charged about $6 for two packages of 12 pads. If they didn’t have the money to pay, the amount would be marked as debt that they owed the jail.

But a few months ago, that extra fee was eliminated.

Due to funding lawmakers included in the state budget this year, jails across Missouri are now being issued payments to reimburse them for the purchase of feminine hygiene products. A provision signed into law also mandates that those products be provided to women at no cost.

“It’s just been nice, because it’s like toilet paper. You need it for a bodily function that you can’t help,” said Sgt. Amber Brashear, the office manager for the Clay County Detention Center, which received a little over $9,500. “So it’s been a long time coming, and I was excited about it as a female employee working here.”

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers worked to include a provision in Senate Bill 53 that stipulates that jails must ensure an appropriate amount of feminine hygiene products are provided at no cost, and that they meet industry quality standards.

While many jails already provided feminine hygiene products for free, not all did. It’s been a policy the state has adopted in its prisons since 2019 and one that’s mandated at a federal level, too.

In Patty Berger’s 20 years in and out of prison for various shoplifting charges, she remembers having to craft makeshift tampons out of ill-fitting pads that were often too big to be used. Berger said there was always the chance that the homemade tampons might lead to an infection, something she witnessed other women experience.

Now, Berger serves as the president of the St. Louis chapter of All Of Us Or None, a national organization that advocates for the rights of current and formerly incarcerated people. Berger said providing free tampons and pads may seem like a small thing, but for women who are incarcerated it “makes all the difference in the world.”

“When you keep breaking people down on every level — even as far as getting a pad or a tampon — it takes a little bit of their humanity from them,” Berger said, later adding: “If we can keep people as close to being human and keep treating people as human beings, I think we all win.”

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, an Ellisville Republican who sponsored legislation on the issue, said he was pleased to see it making a real difference in people’s lives.

“That is very gratifying,” DeGroot said.

State lawmakers also included $240,000 in the Department of Corrections budget this year to issue payments to counties to assist them in complying with the new law.

The funds were divided up among counties based on their percentage of the state’s overall population. Payments were issued in late July by the Department of Corrections and went straight to counties.

“What happens after that is up to each county,” said Karen Pojmann, a spokeswoman for the department.

The funding was news to John Axsom, the corrections director for the Adair County Sheriff’s Office. Axsom said he hadn’t known of the funding until contacted by The Independent. However, the amount his county received — $997.32 — would be more than enough to cover the jail’s costs for providing tampons and pads, he said.

“Every little bit helps,” Axsom said, later adding: “We’re going to incur the cost for it no matter what, but if we can get a reimbursement, that would help the county as a whole.”

Last year, the jail housed 179 incarcerated women — a downturn amid the pandemic, Axsom said.

In 2019, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page signed an executive order that mandated the county’s Department of Justice Services provide feminine hygiene products at no cost. Prior to that, tampons weren’t offered. St. Louis County received the most funds from the state at over $39,000, and Scott Anders, the department’s acting director, said getting them was “fantastic.”

“We’re the largest jail in the city, and so we do have an entire pod of female residents,” Anders said, which can house up to 72 women. “And we want to make sure that they have everything that they need. Some of them are here for a long time, and their hygiene is very important.”

In northwest Missouri along the Iowa border, women weren’t housed in the Mercer County jail until it expanded in 2013, Travis Marts, the jail administrator said. Previously, the jail only had one cell and women were housed in neighboring counties’ jails.

Now, the jail can hold a maximum of 14 people. It rarely holds that many at once, Marts said, and annually averages around three daily, after a 2019 Missouri Supreme Court rule change that emphasized reducing monetary bail costs and the length of detainment.

The sparsely populated county of roughly 3,600 has the second-smallest population of any in the state. As a result, it received just $143.26 to reimburse purchases of pads and tampons, according to the Department of Corrections. Marts said it was nice to receive the funding.

The jail has always provided the feminine hygiene products, Marts said, and both kinds.

“I’m very fortunate to have a staff full of women that have told me that there’s a massive difference between the pads and tampons,” Marts said. “And so I just went with whatever they told me on that one.”

Tampons are available for purchase at the commissary in the Clay County Detention Center, which houses an average of about 28 women daily. But the jail does not provide tampons for free, Brashear said, because of concerns of potential infections, like Toxic Shock Syndrome, a rare, life-threatening condition that occurs as a result of a bacterial infection.

However, state lawmakers and advocates said their intention was for both tampons and pads to be provided under the new law.

“I think that not providing them a tampon probably would increase the risk of toxic shock if women are forced to make their own tampons or make a tampon last longer than it’s supposed to,” said Liza Weiss, the executive director of Missouri Appleseed, a nonprofit that focuses on issues at the intersection of criminal justice reform and public health and worked to get the measure funded and made law.

Research Missouri Appleseed conducted in Missouri’s state prisons in 2018, found that 28% of women surveyed who used homemade tampons reported experiencing a vaginal infection.

Lawmakers and Weiss said they hope to see the funding continue to be included in the state budget annually.

Rep. Tracy McCreery, a St. Louis Democrat who worked on the issue this legislative session, said lawmakers felt it was important to ensure funding was provided to help often cash-strapped local jails comply with the law. She hopes it will also allow incarcerated women to not have to choose between buying essential feminine hygiene products versus spending funds to make calls to keep in touch with loved ones back home.

“I think that’s so important for children to be able to hear from their parent,” McCreery said, later adding: “And I think that helps, in the long run, reduce recidivism.”

The funding has also been a catalyst for other changes. When the Clay County Detention Center lifted its fee on pads, Brashear also advocated for the jail to offer women briefs as an underwear option instead of just the standard boxers.

“They were ecstatic,” Brashear said.

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

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