Appearing in a courtroom in only your underwear is more commonly the stuff of stress dreams or MDMA-induced night terrors. But one Louisville woman's nightmare became real after correctional officers refused to give her pants or female hygiene products, days after her initial arrest—forcing her to turn up to court half-naked.
WDRB reports that the woman in question was arrested after failing to complete a diversion program following a 2014 shoplifting charge. After being arrested on August 24, the defendant was held at a Metro Corrections fFacility before appearing before District Court Judge Amber Wolf on August 29. Throughout this period, she alleges correctional officers refused to give her pants or sanitary napkins, despite repeated requests.
Courtroom footage shows the moment when Judge Wolf realized that the defendant appearing before her was half-dressed. After initially discussing the reasons why the woman was picked up by police, the defendant's attorney leans forward and informs Judge Wolf, "The jail also refused to give her pants and any kind of [feminine] hygiene products that she needed."
After Judge Wolf responds with shock—asking "is this for real" and throwing her pen down—she calls Metro Corrections and asks them to explain why "there is a female defendant standing in my courtroom with no pants on." Growing increasingly exasperated, Wolf apologizes to the woman and demands that someone procures her something—anything—to wear. At one point, the judge exclaims, "Am I in the Twilight Zone? What is happening?"
Denying women access to sanitary products is in violation of UN rules governing the treatment of female offenders. Rule five of the Bangkok Rules—to which the USA is a signatory—specifies, "The accommodation of women prisoners shall have facilities and materials required to meet women's specific hygiene needs, including sanitary towels provided free of charge."
Despite this, prison reform advocates claim that American prisoners are often given insufficient supplies, or denied hygiene products altogether. In 2015, the Women in Prison Project published research highlighting the extent to which women were denied access to sanitary supplies in New York jails. It found that more than half of women were not given enough sanitary napkins for their needs, and the ones that they were being given were too thin.
Jenny Earle is a program director at the Prison Reform Trust, where she leads efforts to reduce female imprisonment. In her view, the fact that the defendant—whose shoplifting charge was her first offense—was even held in custody is a "draconian response."
She explains that shoplifting is the single biggest offense category for which women are sent to prison in the UK, and questions whether such non-violent crimes should merit custodial sentences. "There is still too much defaulting to custodial sentences when we know they're not effective."
Earle emphasizes that women are often overlooked within the criminal justice system, and that includes their menstrual products. "Because women are a small minority of those involved in the criminal justice system, their particular needs are often not met." These include mental health needs—often because women have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse or domestic violence—as well as support for exiting violent or coercive relationships, and addiction issues.
Meanwhile, the defendant in question was released by Judge Wolf with the court's apologies and a $100 fine. But broader questions have been raised about a custodial system that denies a woman's basic hygiene needs and forces her to endure the humiliation of appearing in a public courtroom barely dressed. According to a 2013 factsheet, Metro Correction's annual budget is over $53 million dollars—more than enough to buy a few pairs of pants.
Broadly has reached out to Metro Corrections for comment.