I spent five years in Florida prisons between 2006 and 2011. I did wrong, and I paid the price. But while incarcerated, I earned my high school equivalency diploma and finished other courses, including those in basic computer skills. Today, I’m employed full time and doing well.
While incarcerated, I learned about the importance of dignity and self-esteem. Every day, I still think about the women and woman-identifying people who are behind bars who endure deplorable conditions.
I slept in an open, one-room dormitory with 60 other women. In the summer months, without air conditioning, when temperatures can reach upwards of 95 degrees, we roasted — and of course, we sweat. You can imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t see to your personal hygiene needs in these living conditions. These products are necessary in order to maintain a sense of dignity and hope.
While I was in prison, I had the means to purchase the supplies I needed, but not all women are so fortunate. Sometimes, in order to just try to stay clean, women are forced to trade their precious food for hygiene products. Or they are made into servants for other inmates, doing their laundry or sewing, in exchange for items like shampoo and toothpaste. In some cases, women are even forced into criminal activity, trafficking prohibited items into the prison facility just to make a bit of money that they need for things like tampons.
Pregnant women like Tammy Jackson were forced to give birth in an isolation cell without medical attention.
There are as many as 200,000 women in prisons across the US today. Many wind up there because they suffer from substance abuse, have been sexually assaulted, are victims of domestic violence, or have mental health issues. While we undertake the work to abolish prisons across the country, our goal right now as a society should be to put a strong focus on rehabilitation. Building respect and self-esteem for oneself is a basic building block of rehabilitation, and the ability to perform basic hygiene is a fundamental part of that self-respect. If we want incarcerated women to emerge as productive members of society, we can’t support a system that humiliates them, allows for rampant sexual and physical abuse, and denies them basic hygiene.
Today, I'm encouraged that the Dignity for Incarcerated Pregnant Women Act, also known as the “Tammy Jackson Act,” will soon pass in the Florida state House Chamber to provide better and more accessible medical care to incarcerated pregnant women, and would prohibit Florida detention centres from placing pregnant women into restrictive housing.
The bill is part of a push for state prison reform that began last year with the passage of the “Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act” in the Florida legislature.
The law mandates that any Florida detention facility — both state and county — provide women held there with basic needs to support their health and hygiene. These include feminine hygiene products such as tampons, moisturizing soap that's not lye-based, and toothbrushes and toothpaste. The law deems that these products must be freely and readily available in common areas of the detention centre and in medical treatment facilities.
The new law also creates rules for privacy for detained women, particularly in regard to how male employees in the facilities are allowed to interact with them. It restricts employees' ability to perform body cavity searches and necessitates that they announce their presence when entering a facility in which incarcerated women might be in a state of undress, such as restroom, shower areas, and medical treatment areas.
This law, along with the Tammy Jackson Act, is a step in the right direction and will allow incarcerated women to focus on rehabilitation without suffering unnecessary affronts to their dignity. They will be better able to direct their thoughts to more successful futures. Yes, they committed crimes and are incarcerated, but they are still human beings. Remember that every incarcerated woman is someone’s mother, daughter, or sister. One of them was me.
Tranassa White is a prison reform advocate and resident of Escambia County.