I think most of us could think back and recall times where different choices, events ending in a different way or life spiralling out of our control could have landed us in police custody. I can’t imagine anything worse than being in a cell and having my period, for any number of reasons, and the more I have learned on the topic the more damaging to my dignity and wellbeing I think it would be.

When the issue first came across my radar, it was with a pretty extreme couple of examples, raised by Custody Visitors last year both which set me thinking and with a pretty hefty sense of outrage on behalf of the detainees (if you have ever heard me up on my soapbox about a number of topics you will know this outrage well!).

The example I wish to talk about here concerned a female detainee who was at extremely high risk of self-harm in custody. The woman concerned was put in anti-rip clothing or suit, and was menstruating at the time she was in custody. She wasn’t able to keep her underwear due to the elastic and the risk of harming herself with it which is fair enough you might think, her safety is paramount. I agree, however, due to this risk and the suit, she was unable to wear a sanitary pad as she would have been unable to keep it in place due to the looseness of the suit. So the answer is a tampon surely? No, also not able to have due to the risk of occluding her airways, the result? No sanitary protection at all. I will just leave that with you to think about what that might mean, for anyone in any situation, let alone for someone who is unwell enough to harm, is in a stressful situation and vulnerable.

This led to us undertaking some research around what other institutions do under these circumstances, and a range of possible solutions were proffered, such as making sanitary towels from the same materials as the anti-rip suits (really? Sewing bees for sanitary towels?), pull up style pants, (funnily enough I didn’t like this idea much either), which don’t contain elastic etc. The overwhelming response to the question we asked was, that if someone was at that high a risk of a self-injury incident, they would be on constant observation and therefore could be allowed to keep underwear, or use a tampon as any moves to ligature with underwear or occlude with a tampon could be dealt with efficiently and effectively. Simple answer you would think, but apparently not one that was used in this case.

We at ICVA wanted to think further about this area. How do women in custody access sanitary products, who do they have to ask, what kinds do they get?

The answers to these questions vary from area to area and suite to suite, so let’s deal with how women access sanitary wear and who they need to ask. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that whilst custody staff go to effort to ensure that female detainees have female custody staff booking them in and dealing with their needs, this is not always practicable for entire stays in custody.  This is due to the gender inequity in staffing. I have seen examples of where systems prompt staff to ask about whether they require sanitary protection, but equally have viewed booking in where this hasn’t been routinely asked at this point, or asked by a male staff member. Just as an additional FYI – booking in areas often are busy, and depending on the suite can be overcrowded with more than one detainee, so you could be in a position of needing to discuss your period across a desk and stood next to someone else (just imagine how I would quail at that!).

So, (and imagine how much I am cringing at my keyboard now), let’s talk about flow. Periods have different needs in terms of flow, and what might suit one part of one day may well not quite be up to the job for another. Never underestimate the range of products that a woman might need during her period. Custody suites typically only have one absorbency of tampon and towel available, and a limited supply thereof. One senior officer described the packs that they have to buy as “woeful”. This means that, more often than not, a female detainee could have something that wasn’t absorbent enough, was uncomfortable, or wasn’t able to change the sanitary wear as often as they might wish to do so.

Ok, so assuming we have had a female staff member booking us in, and the sanitary wear given is appropriate for need, hurrah! Sadly no, we’re not done yet people! There are more issues yet to go before you have full dignity in custody when menstruating.

Let’s go on to changing your sanitary wear – now, I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but suffice to say it’s not always the most discreet thing to do! Custody suites with CCTV cells pixelate the toilet pans themselves. However, these pixelated bits of the cell are very small; I would have grave concerns as to whether this would be enough to preserve the dignity of a woman endeavouring to change her sanitary protection. I would suggest it probably wasn’t? Sanitary wear given and changed, all is well with the world until you notice that you are in an older suite, and there is nowhere in cell to be able to wash your hands, meaning you would need to ask for a staff member to come and escort you to somewhere you could do this, possibly depending on what was happening in the suite enduring a bit of a wait. Not nice.

Whilst I appreciate that the fabric of older cells and the gender balance in custody staff is an issue much bigger than my humble blog, I really do think that a greater range of products, more widely available and consideration of the issues above is a really good starting point and something we all have a responsibility to make happen!

So, have I found this blog uncomfortable to write due to my own awkwardness talking about periods and all they entail? Yes, I undoubtedly have.

Do I think that it’s so important an issue for the dignity of women in custody that we all need to overcome any awkwardness and talk openly about the issue until sanitary protection in custody is varied and freely available? Yes, yes, I really do.