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A middle aged woman sweating from hot flashes due to menopause
Illustration by Janelle Retka

I became incarcerated at age 35. Soon, I will turn 50. For the last few years, I have been perimenopausal, the stage before menopause when hormone changes begin and menstruation becomes more irregular before ending completely. 

During the last few years, the state mandated that Virginia prisons provide products such as pads and tampons at no charge. (These are sometimes called “menstrual equity” laws; the majority of states have nothing like it on the books.) But for women going through perimenopause, a period when heavy bleeding is common, the pads provided by the prison are inadequate. They are not designed to withstand this kind of bleeding. 

In my experience, the medical staff will not provide larger, thicker pads. We can purchase pads from commissary, but they are either thin pantyliners or insufficient regular pads, which cost between $3.76 and $4.15, depending on the brand and item count. These prices are slightly lower than they are in the free world, but those of us lucky enough to have prison jobs work for pennies on the dollar — and sometimes for nothing. In Virginia prisons, wages range from 27 cents to 80 cents an hour.

My situation is even more complicated because I am on a blood thinning medication called Eliquis. This means that I tend to bleed even more heavily, and am unable to use tampons. 

And that means I must get creative. To prevent bleeding through to my panties and clothes, I have to use four of the state pads to absorb the blood. During periods of heavy bleeding, I have to change them every hour. 

The discomforts don’t stop there. Like many perimenopausal women, I am constantly and intensely hot. Even with air conditioning, the temperature in the wing where I reside hovers around 73 degrees. To try and stay cool, I use an eight-inch fan that I bought from our commissary vendor for $30. An equivalent fan at Walmart sells for $10. 

Last summer, the air conditioning went out several times over a two-month period. The temperature in the unit hovered around 83 degrees. We had large industrial fans placed in our dayroom, but all this did was circulate hot, stagnant air. With the humidity, it felt like it was 100 degrees. I remember many of us making calls to our family, asking them to call the prison and beg them to bring us ice so we could cool off. 

Going through perimenopause during these conditions felt impossible. I couldn’t cool off, I was bleeding heavily, and I couldn’t even take a cool shower. I and others felt clammy to the touch. I knew the signs were there for heat exhaustion. We could hardly sleep, as our sheets were drenched in sweat. Being confined to a room about the size of a parking space made us feel even more claustrophobic, like we were running out of air.

It gets worse still.

When our prison is locked down to have our cells searched, we must strip off our clothes and remove our pads and tampons in front of staff. It is degrading and humiliating. It diminishes our dignity. During some searches, I have leaked blood on the floor and been made to turn around and squat and cough. Most women I know, including myself, have never even placed or removed these sanitary items in front of our own husbands. 

As a woman in prison, you are punished for your crime — and your biology. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Donna Hockman is a mother of two grown children as well as a grandmother. She is incarcerated in Virginia.