At least half of the women in Nebraska prisons have a diagnosed mental illness, compared with a quarter of male inmates, and judges sent a majority of them there for nonviolent crimes, according to a new report released Thursday.
The ACLU of Nebraska, which was responsible for the report, already has filed a federal lawsuit against the state to address crowding and inmate access to medical care at the state's prisons.
But Thursday, the civil liberties group called on Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, to act immediately to address an issue unique to incarcerated women: access to menstrual products.
The ACLU report said the prison provides some menstrual pads to inmates, but routinely treats menstrual supplies, such as tampons and panty-liner products, as "luxury items" for purchase at the commissary, like candy bars or chips.
They said women in prison across the state and in jails in Lincoln and Omaha often pay as much as 50 percent more than they would at local grocery stores and pharmacies for the items.
Late Thursday afternoon, Frakes said in an email that the prison provides feminine hygiene products at no charge to incarcerated women.
"Sanitary napkins are available in the restrooms and on the housing unit," he said. "Additional items are available for purchase in the canteen."
Scout Richters, Legal and Policy Counsel for the ACLU of Nebraska, said, "Women who have spoken with the ACLU have told us stories of bleeding for days in jail or prison due to not having access to tampons or pads."
Richters said others have gone months without access to medical care after reporting issues, like one woman, who had a three-month-long menstrual cycle.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said Nebraska should follow the lead of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which started providing tampons, pads and other feminine hygiene products free of charge as of Aug. 1.
"This is one small but important step Nebraska leaders can and should take to improve prison conditions. It’s about gender equity, reproductive justice, and basic dignity and respect for our Nebraska neighbors who are incarcerated,” she said.
It was just one issue for Conrad, who said the state's prisons and jails are overburdened with women "who don't need to be there."
According to the report, as of June, some 422 women, or about 45 of every 100,000, were in prison in Nebraska, many of them mothers and serving time at the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York, an hour or more from most of their families.
"The explanation for the increase in women being jailed and imprisoned can be traced to the 'war on drugs,' or aggressive law enforcement response to drugs, including drug possession," the report said.
Nearly half are in custody for drugs or theft, the investigation found. Yet, nearly 16 percent leave prison without getting access to programs and services related for substance-abuse issues.
Conrad said the decline in funding for mental health services also has led to more women in the state being placed behind bars.
"Reform requires our state and counties to look at all aspects of our system, from modern-day debtors' prisons to the misguided war on drugs," she said. "While these reforms may take time, women in Nebraska facilities need better access to health care today."