Reports of police ignoring the needs of menstruating women in custody have begun to circulate, finally, thanks to efforts from the Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA). It has long been a well-known problem among those who interact with the criminal-justice system – but, until now, the culture of neglect and humiliation that many women have been subjected to while in police detention has too often been overlooked.
As the BBC reported on Thursday, the Home Office-funded ICVA found several examples of women detainees complaining of being deprived of sanitary and hygiene products and facilities, not being able to speak to women police officers about their period-related needs, and being left to bleed on their clothes or in paper suits for hours.
Sarah Smith* had her period when she was taken into police custody two years ago. When she asked for tampons or a pad, the police didn’t provide either. “I felt degraded. I felt horrible,” she tells The Pool. “It made me feel like, I can't help this, you're not helping me and I've been strip-searched and I'm not trying to do anything.”
She was left in a state of vulnerability sufficient to cause concern for her wellbeing, bleeding in a paper suit, alone in a cell
In one case highlighted by the ICVA, a woman in custody was said to have been forced to go without underwear and sanitary products while she had her period. “She was left in a state of vulnerability sufficient to cause concern for her wellbeing, bleeding in a paper suit, alone in a cell," the ICVA said.
Speaking to BuzzFeed, a woman called Joanne spoke of having to wait for 20 minutes before a police officer finally provided her with a pad “with a snigger”.
“If you’re requesting something like that, you know what it’s like. You don’t always have 20 minutes.
“I felt like it was a joke between them [...] I was made to feel stupid; I was made to feel embarrassed by something that is actually natural. I felt ashamed.”
As revealed in exclusive reports from BuzzFeed and the BBC, the ICVA has written an open letter to home secretary Amber Rudd about the persisting period-related issues it found in a number of police cells around the UK. In the letter, the body calls for: the provision of women police officers for women in custody; police officers asking about women’s needs in private during the process of booking women detainees in; “hygiene pack[s]” for all women in custody (and a new one after six hours have passed); and pixelated CCTV monitoring to allow for women in custody to change in private, as well as several other demands.
After confirming receipt of the letter, which implores Rudd to take “swift action” about the treatment of menstruating women in custody, a Home Office spokesperson said:
“Everyone who is held in custody should be treated with dignity and have their needs respected. That is why we are working closely with the Independent Custody Visiting Association and the National Police Chiefs’ Council to understand where improvements can be made on this issue.”
Smith, who now works in advertising and marketing through help from Working Chance, a recruitment agency dedicated to supporting women leaving the criminal justice and care systems, felt that police may have treated her differently because of her mental health issues, which meant that asking for something as simple as sanitary care was enough to arouse the police’s suspicions.
“I was on [my period] already, I needed to change and they wouldn't give me anything because they thought I was trying to conceal stuff. I had to use tissues [from] the toilet in the cell. But it didn't make sense because I'd been strip-searched and they still wouldn't give me anything.
“I was in the cell for 23 hours. I wasn't allowed my clothes, I wasn't allowed anything. Maybe it would've been different if it had been a different case,” she said. And it may well have been, considering the fact that those at risk of self-harm tend to have all their clothes removed as a protective measure.
According to BuzzFeed, the ICVA has also highlighted the importance of putting in measures to protect women detainees with mental-health issues who find themselves menstruating in police custody, as well as in general.
For Smith, who was sectioned and taken to Central Middlesex Hospital in London after being held in custody – and would not have had access to sanitary products had it not been for her mother bringing supplies to the hospital – the police’s approach to her period was less than favourable. “I was treated a bit differently to say, someone else who doesn’t have mental health issues and was arrested,” she said.
Several MPs have backed the ICVA’s efforts to afford women in custody better treatment. Speaking to BuzzFeed News, shadow minister for public health, Sharon Hodgson, said: “No woman should ever face the indignity or complete disregard for their human rights by not being given sanitary products whilst in custody.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the interviewee