Criminal justice advocates say that a lack of sanitary products in women’s prisons is humiliating, prompting a group of Democratic lawmakers to propose legislation that they say will create a slightly more humane environment for females jailed in Florida.
The “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” would require correctional facilities to provide incarcerated women with some key health care products for free and set new requirements for male correctional employees.
“At its simplest, this bill is simply about dignity,” said Orlando Rep. Amy Mercado, who is sponsoring the legislation in the House along with Hollywood Rep. Shevrin Jones. Jones said the legislation has been endorsed by the new head of Florida’s Department of Corrections, Mark Inch.
That word – dignity – was echoed by several women of color who have served time behind bars and who spoke at a press conference with Democratic lawmakers in the Capitol this week.
“Being incarcerated is already punishment. We should not be punished while (being) incarcerated,” said Valencia Gunder, a coalition organizer with the New Florida Majority and a formerly incarcerated woman herself. “This is a problem that has gone unseen for far too long.”
The bill calls for female prisoners to have access to free medical necessities like toothpaste and menstrual hygiene products. Mercado says that would remove the economic barrier to care which disproportionately affects low income people and people of color.
There is a social contract in the criminal justice system, says Miami-Dade state Senator Jason Pizzo. And part of that contract includes treating prisoners humanely.
“However, my tours of holding facilities and county facilities and state prison facilities did not demonstrate that,” he said. “The state and the system was not living up to their part of the social contract. The availability of these items that we placed in the bill are critical and necessary.”
Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced in 2017 that women in its facilities would be guaranteed free sanitary products, that policy change was only valid in federal prisons. The vast majority of incarcerated women are housed in state prisons and local jails. Only a handful of states have followed suit in passing their own legislation.
Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville was also at the Capitol for the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act announcement. Alexander became a national figure when she invoked the Stand Your Ground self defense law after she fired a warning shot at her estranged husband in 2010. The courts ruled against her, and she ended up spending three years in prison.
“We’re talking about dignity and humanity,” she said in support of the new law.
The bill also addresses the behavior of male prison staffers. It would prohibit a male employee from conducting a pat-down search or body cavity search on an incarcerated woman unless the woman presents an immediate risk to herself or others and a female correctional facility employee is not available to do the search.
Plantation Democrat Lauren Book and Miami Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez are co-sponsoring the bill in the Senate.