Illegal Sterilizations of California Inmates Reminiscent of Eugenics Era

Nora Sullivan, M.P.A  

Information released this week by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) has revealed that doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation used state funds to sterilize at least 148 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approval.


According to documents from the state of California, these women prisoners received tubal ligations which they were signed up for while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla.


Former inmates and prisoner advocates assert that prison medical staff coerced the women- targeting those deemed likely to return to prison. One former inmate, Crystal Nguygen, at Valley State Prison who worked in the prison’s infirmary said she often heard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple sentences to agree to be sterilized. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right.’ Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”


Dr. James Heinrich, the OB-GYN at Valley State Prison, performed sterilizations on women prisoners and claimed to CIR that he provided an invaluable service to these women and that the $147,460 in state funds used to perform these sterilizations was minimal.


Another former prisoner, Kimberly Jeffrey, claims she was pressured to consent to a tubal ligation while sedated and strapped to a surgery table during the cesarean delivery of her son. “He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’” recounts Jeffrey. “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.”


At no time was Ms. Jeffrey offered any medical justification for the procedure.


Unfortunately, California does not have the best record regarding state sponsored coerced or forced sterilization- especially when it comes to those in the criminal justice system.  Thirty-two states enacted eugenic programs during the early to mid-20th century out of a distorted desire to purify the human race of those deemed deficient- the criminal, the “feeble-minded”, the impure, and the mentally ill.  California’s was, however, the most efficient.  The state forcibly sterilized 20,000 Californians between 1909 and 1963.


According to Edwin Black, in his book War against the Weak, “California was the third state to adopt forced sterilization in 1909. Chapter 720 of the state’s statutory code permitted castration or sterilization of state convicts and the residents of the California Home for the Care and Training of Feebleminded Children in Sonoma County. Two institutional bureaucrats would recommend the procedure if they deemed it beneficial to a subject’s ‘physical, mental, or moral condition.’”


Under California’s eugenics law, any criminal found guilty of any crime three times could be sterilized upon the discretion of a consulting physician. It is extremely worrisome to think that, despite the fact that this law was overturned decades ago, there are those in authority in California’s justice system that seem to have reverted back to this eugenically inspired state of mind.  They have reverted back to same dark and anti-scientific way of thinking of such eugenicists as Charles Davenport and Margaret Sanger- who believed that they could breed better people- an idea which contradicts the hope and potential which exists in humanity. In the April 1932 issue of Birth Control Review, Sanger called for “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring…


To treat someone thus, regardless of the fact that they are a prison inmate, is to ignore the dignity owed to them as a human-being.  The state has a responsibility to protect those under their supervision- including those in correctional facilities. The state of California must be held accountable for the injustice done to these women and it must be hoped that protections will be put in place to make sure that this does not happen in the future.


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