From 2006 -t 2010, at least 148 female inmates were forcibly sterilized by doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, says a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Some 100 more women may have been subjected to the procedure as far back as the late 1990s.
Women who were housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla (which is now a men’s prison) were signed up for the procedure while they were pregnant. Those who refused say they were repeatedly asked to undergo the surgery, a tubal ligation. One woman indeed says that she was asked while she was strapped to the surgical table for a C-section.
Prison Officials Say They Did Not Know Approval Was Required Before Performing Sterilizations
Because sterilization of inmates is banned under federal and state law if federal funds are used – on the basis that prisoners may feel pressured to undergo the procedure — California has used state funds. Since 1994, approval by top medical officials in Sacramento has been necessary before the operation is carried out.
But Dr. Ricki Barnett, who tracks medical services and costs for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp., says that the state’s Health Care Review Committee has not received any such requests for approval since she joined the agency in 2008.
In 2008, an Oakland-based prisoner rights group, Justice Now, filed a public records request and contacted the office of state Sen. Carol Liu, who was the chairwoman of the Select Committee on Women and Children in the Criminal Justice System. Barnett was then asked to research the matter in 2010. When she met with health administrators from the two prisons, doctors, nurses and contracting physicians, she learned that not a single one of the doctors was aware they had to have the state’s permission before performing the sterilizations.
“Everybody was operating on the fact that this was a perfectly reasonable thing to do,” Barnett says.
Were Prisoners Intimidated Into Undergoing Sterilization?
The reasons that doctors and prison officials give to justify the sterilizations reveals deeply discriminatory attitudes. Former inmates including Crystal Nguyen, who worked in Valley State Prison’s infirmary during 2007 when she was incarcerated there, says that she “often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.”
Dr. James Heinrich, who was the prison’s OB-GYN and is now one of its contract physicians, denies pressuring anyone and says that the $147,460 he was paid for each operation was minimal. “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more,” he comments.
Daun Martin a licensed psychologist and the top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008, says that the tubal ligations were an “empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside.” According to Martin, some women who were pregnant and on drugs or homeless “would commit crimes so they could return to prison for better health care.” The state’s contracts database reveals that at least 60 tubal ligations were performed during her tenure, though she denies giving approval.
According to the Center for Investigative Reporting‘s study, Heinrich and Martin actually thought that the state’s restrictions were “unfair to women.” Heinrich says that he only offered tubal ligations to women who had had at least three C-sections, on the grounds that additional pregnancies could endanger the women’s health. But countering Martin’s claims that the tubal ligations were providing female inmates with “the same options as women on the outside,” Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB-GYN at San Francisco General Hospital, says that, while having multiple C-sections can increase the risk of complications, “it’s more appropriate to offer women reversible means of birth control, like intrauterine devices or implants.”
Heinrich, Martin and other prison officials — with apparently little recognition of the pressure that female inmates were under — simply put their patronizing attitudes towards female prisoners into action. As Barnett says,
“It wasn’t so much that people were conspiratorial or coercive or sloppy. It concerns me that people never took a step back to project what they would feel if they were in the inmate’s shoes and what the inmate’s future might hold should they do this.”
The very recent forced sterilization of so many female inmates in California is another ugly chapter in the history of eugenics in the state. Between 1909 and 1964, some 20,000 women and men were forcibly sterilized between 1909 and 1964. Indeed, California became “the nation’s most prolific sterilizer” and, says the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Nazi Germany sought the advice of the state’s eugenics leaders in the 1930s.” Only in 1979 did California formally ban the practice of sterilizing repeat offenders and individuals with intellectual disabilities.
In 2003, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Gov. Gray Davis issued formal apologies for those who had been forcibly sterilized by the state. Female inmates who have been forcibly sterilized deserve the same and also a full investigation. It is inhumane that, in the 21st century, California has still been carrying out forced sterilizations on women who were incarcerated — or on anyone.
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