Members Who Inspire

Attorney pushes for prisoners to have more access to women’s hygiene products

  • Print

Photo of Julie Abbate by David Fonda

Julie Abbate didn’t hesitate when members of the ABA Criminal Justice Section asked her to draft a resolution about prisoners’ access to tampons and sanitary pads in 2018.

She had spent most of her 25-year legal career advocating for prisoners’ rights—particularly female prisoners’ rights—and knew from experience that they often lack access to feminine hygiene products.

Even if state prisons and county jails provide sanitary pads to women, quantities are often limited and not always available when needed. Tampons and extra sanitary pads can be purchased at a commissary, but that isn’t a realistic option for many female prisoners.

The consequences of restricting access to these products can be severe. Women are often forced to barter with other inmates or even correctional staff in an underground economy, sometimes for coveted items but sometimes for sexual favors. They can be left with no choice but to visibly bleed for five to seven days in front of everyone around them.

“It’s a basic dignity issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s a women’s issue and it’s also a safety issue,” Abbate says. “It should be a no-brainer.”

The House of Delegates agreed, and at the ABA Midyear Meeting in January, it overwhelmingly approved Resolution 109C, which calls on governments to enact legislation, and correctional and detention facilities to enact policies, that provide all female prisoners with unrestricted access to free toilet paper and a range of free feminine hygiene products.

Abbate, the national advocacy director of Just Detention International, is now working with state correctional agencies and county sheriffs to help implement the ABA policy in the field.

In less than six months, she has heard from corrections officials in Oregon and Arizona who plan to adopt changes. She expects facilities in Georgia and California to follow and join those in Alabama and Nebraska that have already implemented policies.

Several states, including Colorado and Maine, also recently introduced legislation that would provide more access to feminine hygiene products in their prisons and jails.

“We’re trying to do outreach with folks,” Abbate says. “Let’s talk about tampons. Here is this resolution that was adopted. Here is what it says. What are you going to do about it?

“I’m optimistic that once they start implementing this, they’ll see it’s just the right thing to do.”


Abbate first discovered the plight of female prisoners during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, where she majored in women’s studies.

She took a class that focused on women in prison and was paired with an inmate at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Her class traveled to the prison regularly so students could get to know the prisoners.

Abbate later helped establish a program at Washtenaw County Jail in Ann Arbor that allowed its female prisoners to spend more quality time with their children during visitation.

Based on those experiences, she decided she wanted to help people get out of jail—or help them not end up there in the first place. She graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1993 but had a tough time finding a job as a public defender. She started at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C., instead. She had been a summer associate at the firm and was drawn to its pro bono program.

One of her first assigned cases was Women Prisoners v. District of Columbia, a class action lawsuit that alleged a pattern of discrimination against female prisoners in the D.C. correctional system, including widespread sexual abuse by staff. In 1994, after a three-week trial, the district court held that abuses of female prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment and appointed an independent monitor to investigate all future allegations.

“That type of litigation, the large-scale, fact-based investigation, really allowed me to feel that I had an impact on people’s lives in a meaningful way, and not just the individuals in the current case, but the women that would come behind them,” Abbate says.

Abbate joined the Federal Trade Commission as a staff attorney in 1997 and continued working on large-scale investigations related to consumer fraud.

Three years later, she became a teaching fellow at the University of Baltimore School of Law’s civil advocacy clinic and then worked as an acting managing attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C.

While Abbate appreciated the immediate gratification of helping those in need, she missed providing a long-term impact to people other than the actual clients.

A Passionate Advocate

She found her calling at the Department of Justice, where she first worked as a senior trial attorney and then as deputy chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.

“I was doing exactly what I always wanted to, which was prisoners’ advocacy on a large scale,” she says.

For 15 years, Abbate enforced the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, focusing on the constitutional rights of female and transgender prisoners and custodial sexual abuse. She supervised more than 30 CRIPA matters involving more than 50 correctional facilities across the country.

She also became a member of the Attorney General’s Prison Rape Elimination Act Working Group, drafting and reviewing standards to prevent, detect and respond to prison rape.

In May 2018, Abbate moved to Just Detention International, a human rights organization that focuses exclusively on ending sexual abuse in detention. As part of her role in the Washington, D.C., office, she helps correctional facilities meet the national standards and uses her past experiences to educate them on prevention.

“It’s a closed system, a closed jail, a closed prison,” Abbate says. “There is no reason why you can’t completely eliminate sexual abuse in those facilities.”


Carla Laroche, co-chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s Women in Criminal Justice Committee, first read that women in prison were not ensured free access to feminine hygiene products in an article about an Arizona bill that aimed to supply them with more than 12 sanitary pads per month.

Laroche mentioned it to Patrice Payne, senior counsel in the Criminal Justice Section, who reached out to Abbate about drafting a resolution.

“She has been so heavily involved with this issue,” says Laroche, a clinical professor with the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University College of Law. “She wanted it to succeed, and every time we mentioned some kind of criticism another group might bring up, she had already thought about it and addressed it in her report.”

Abbate points out that while female prisoners are the fastest-growing group in the incarcerated population, they only comprise about 10% of the country’s prisoners. As a result, women are living in correctional facilities that were designed for men.

Some facilities argue that unlimited access to feminine hygiene products would lead to women hoarding supplies, or—as Abbate writes in the report that accompanies Resolution 109C—using them to “clean cells or housing units, quiet squeaky doors, stabilize uneven chairs or tables, to protect blisters, or to pad cold metal toilet seats.”

Abbate has also heard concerns about security but says facilities that provide unrestricted access to feminine hygiene products have not reported any issues.

“Some women might abuse the privilege just like some prisoners might abuse any privilege, or any rule, and when that happens, you just deal with the specific problem at issue instead of taking everything away from everybody,” Abbate says.

Abbate, who was a member of the ABA in law school and rejoined in 2018, says the resolution was important to her because restricting access to tampons and sanitary pads illustrates the larger problem of assuming the same policies work for both male and female prisoners.

“This resolution highlights why they need to be responded to by different, gender-responsive policies,” Abbate says. “This is really the most clear-cut example of that, and by building on this example, we can help make other policies more gender-responsive as well.” 

Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].

This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Feminine Protection: Julie Abbate pushes for prisoners to have more access to women’s hygiene products.”

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.