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Denver's Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, also known as the downtown jail, photographed on March 18, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Women locked up in state prisons have access to free tampons, but that’s not the case in all of Colorado’s jails.

House Bill 1224 making its way through the Colorado General Assembly mandates that every county and municipal jail offer free feminine hygiene products to inmates who need them.

Colorado lawmakers in 2017 passed a $40,000 budget amendment to ensure female state prison inmates have access to free tampons. In the process, they publicized a problem that was putting incarcerated women into the dangerous position of needing to barter behind bars.

Now, the legislature is poised to ensure every incarcerated woman in Colorado has access to feminine hygiene products.

State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat. (Handout)

“The most concerning piece about not having tampons and other menstruation products provided in confinement are manyfold,” said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who is leading the push for the measure. “… Women (in prison) were actually having to barter with tampons because they became a commodity. In corrections, if you restrict the use of something — or access to something — it tends to have a monetary value almost.”

Herod said she found that the need was so great that some women were even trading sex for tampons. Her goal with House Bill 1224 is to “ensure that we have consistent policies across the state of Colorado.”

The legislation would also require the Colorado Department of Corrections, which oversees the state’s prisons, offer free tampons to female inmates.

In Colorado, jails overseen by local governments are where inmates are housed while they await trial or where they serve shorter sentences. Policies around distribution of feminine hygiene products, and the types offered, vary from county to county.

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The issue grabbed headlines last month when cash-bail reform activist Elisabeth Epps was jailed. She said she started her period on her first day of her work-release sentence in Arapahoe County, but was not given feminine hygiene products until 10 days later.

There are other jails in Colorado where women have not been able to access free tampons.

In Alamosa County, Sheriff Robert Jackson says his inmates have traditionally been provided with free pads. If anyone in his jail wanted tampons, they had to buy them through the commissary.

That will soon be changing, though. After consulting with a female deputy, and after finding out about the House Bill 1224, Jackson’s office is making a change. They have ordered bulk tampons — which cost about the same as pads — and they will soon be distributed to inmates.

“We’ve got tampons on the way,” he said.

Asked why they weren’t provided to inmates in the first place, Jackson said simply: “It’s never been an issue. Nobody ever complained about it.” Providing free tampons, Jackson said, “seemed to be the right thing to do.”

Denver’s two city jails already provide free pads and tampons to female inmates. Denver Sheriff Department Chief Elias Diggins, recently elected to lead the American Jail Association, said the conversation is one that’s growing across the country as more women are jailed.

“There are jails that do not understand this (need),” he testified last week. “Through the legislation, they will have to understand it.”

He called the bill a step in the right direction “as we all begin to focus on an overlooked segment in our community.”

“By forcing women to pay for an item that is a basic need, we create a system where an individual may feel pressured to barter or borrow the item and be placed in the uncomfortable and vulnerable position of owing another inmate,” Diggins said. “These unnecessary scenarios can lead to violence and assaults.”

The measure passed out of its first committee in the Colorado House on Thursday by an 11-0, vote. It now heads to the chamber’s floor for more debate.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...