Colorado moves to provide free tampons to women in jails

Not providing menstrual products like tampons and pads to women in custody may be cruel and unusual punishment, supporters say

Elisabeth Epps speaking at the MLK marade on Jan. 21, 2019. (Photo by Alex Burness)

On January 24, Elisabeth Epps was sentenced to 27 days in the Arapahoe County Jail for obstructing a peace officer at a pool party in 2015. While in custody, Epps requested a tampon. She was told it would take up to ten days to arrive.

“My period is over,” she tweeted in January while out on work release. “But this fight for women’s rights in Arapahoe cage has just begun.”

Epps is a criminal justice activist and abolitionist who has helped raise money to pay jail bonds for strangers. Her story, which drew media attention in the Denver metro area, inspired lawmakers this year to step in and draft a bill that would require jails to offer free menstrual hygiene products like tampons, pads, cups and sanitary napkins.

On Thursday, after a bail reform measure passed without objection, the House Judiciary Committee passed the menstrual products bill 11-0. Without those products, supporters say, women face both health risks and humiliation during their time in custody.

“This is about dignity. No one should have to beg, plead, borrow, barter, or pay to receive tampons while in confinement. They are vital for thousands of Coloradans sitting in our local jails and should be provided without cost. Period,” Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver, said in a statement.

Across the country, the American Civil Liberties Union has successfully sued counties that don’t provide free menstrual products in their jails, alleging cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, Denise Maes, the public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, told lawmakers.

Nationally, the number of women in prisons and jails is growing faster than that of men. There is no centralized data collection to analyze trends in county jails, but Colorado’s prison population mirrors the national trend. The number of women in the state prison system has increased 19 percent since 2014, according to the Department of Corrections. That compares to a 2 percent increase among men.

Herod and Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster, helped pass a budget amendment in 2017 providing free tampons and pads to women in state prisons.