There Is Help Beyond Bars

 Source: Ms. Magazine Blog

There Is Help Beyond Bars

Our resolution: raise awareness about women’s health in prisons

Since our start less than a year ago, we’ve been focused on strengthening women by promoting health. This past fall and winter, we’ve developed various connections in the community. We’ve hosted educational clinics at Exalta Health (previously Health Intervention Services) in Grand Rapids, and run feminine product drives at Michigan OB/GYN PC, Dégagé Ministries, Fountain Street Church, and Grand Valley State’s Professional Organization for Women Entering Reality (POWER)--just to name a few.

Now, in 2017, we’ll be pushing forward to improve menstrual health for some of our less visible, yet no less important neighbors. Incarcerated women often have frustrating experiences with accessing health services, which leads to poor health outcomes. In a recent Canadian study, women described multiple barriers to accessing health services that resulted in negative consequences to their health: treatment interruption; health disempowerment; poor mental and physical health; and recidivism into addiction and crime upon release.

"Women are being incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of men," says Asha Bandele of the Drug Policy Alliance. "From the 1980s, the female prison population has grown over 800 percent, whereas the male population grew just about 400 percent. Today, some 1 million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, with more than 200,000 of them incarcerated."

So far, there have been few comprehensive studies on health effects for incarcerated women in the United States. Stressors before, during and after incarceration contribute to menstrual irregularity, indicating that these women are among the most at-risk for poor menstrual health and hygiene. In a recent Detroit Free Press article on Michigan’s only all-women’s prison,  former inmate Mary Beth Vines said that wait times for health care services were “insane.” “You have to be seen by a nurse three times in a 30-day calendar period before a doctor will see you,” she said.

On June 13, the U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, which is described as “an overcrowded prison where drugs are widely available, the roof leaks so badly it has shorted out the lights, and fatigue and stress that is detracting from the ability of corrections officers to function effectively.”

Upon their release, this population of women needs not be forgotten. They need just as much support in meeting their feminine hygiene needs as part of their integration back into our community. Lack of proper menstruation management can be an immediate source of low self-esteem and depression for these women.

Be A Rose is committed to strengthening women’s health support networks, wherever it’s needed most. When asked, incarcerated women made three important recommendations for correctional health service delivery: provision of comprehensive health entry and exit assessments; improvement of health literacy; and establishment of health support networks. In our upcoming advocacy work, we hope to take women’s health seriously inside prisons, and in communities of returning citizens.

Our goal in the spring of 2017 is to make connections with various programs in our community that provide reentry resources to women rejoining our community from prisons or jails. We want to ensure that meeting their feminine hygiene needs will not be a barrier in their resettlement process to becoming productive and contributing members of our community and of their families. If you know of any programs that are offering reentry assistance to women in the Greater Grand Rapids community please contact Christine Mwangi at

By Kai Koopman