Female Inmates Wrongfully Sterlized In California Prisons

from Outside the Beltway
Jul 08 2013 12:27 PM

Handcuffs Jail

It’s been explicitly against the law in California to forcibly sterilize female inmates in state prison for at least the past thirty years, and yet somehow that was allowed to happen as recently as the past several years:

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and 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.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” said Nguyen, 28. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

One former Valley State inmate who gave birth to a son in October 2006 said the institution’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, repeatedly pressured her to agree to a tubal ligation.

“As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it,” said Christina Cordero, 34, who spent two years in prison for auto theft. ”He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

Cordero, released in 2008 and now living in Upland, agreed to the procedure. “Today,” she said, “I wish I would have never had it done.”

The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979.

In an interview with CIR, Heinrich said he provided an important service to poor women who faced health risks in future pregnancies because of past Caesarean sections. The 69-year-old Bay Area physician denied pressuring anyone and expressed surprise that local contract doctors had charged for the surgeries. He described the $147,460 total as minimal.

The doctors involved are claiming that they were performing an important service for these women:

In an interview with CIR, Heinrich said he provided an important service to poor women who faced health risks in future pregnancies because of past Caesarean sections. The 69-year-old Bay Area physician denied pressuring anyone and expressed surprise that local contract doctors had charged for the surgeries. He described the $147,460 total as minimal.

“Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money,” Heinrich said, “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

The top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008 characterized the surgeries as an empowerment issue for female inmates, providing them the same options as women on the outside. Daun Martin, a licensed psychologist, also claimed that some pregnant women, particularly those on drugs or who were homeless, would commit crimes so they could return to prison for better health care.

“Do I criticize those women for manipulating the system because they’re pregnant? Absolutely not,” said Martin, 73. “But I don’t think it should happen. And I’d like to find ways to decrease that.”

Martin denied approving the surgeries, but at least 60 tubal ligations were done at Valley State while Martin was in charge, according to the state contracts database.

The women involved certainly don’t sound like they went into this voluntarily:

Kimberly Jeffrey says she was pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section in 2010, during a stint at Valley State. She had failed a drug test while out on parole for a previous series of thefts.

Jeffrey, 43, was horrified, she said, and resisted.

“He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’ ” Jeffrey said. “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.”

Jeffrey provided copies of her official prison and hospital medical files to CIR. Those records show Jeffrey rejected a tubal ligation offer during a December 2009 prenatal checkup at Heinrich’s office. A medical report from Jeffrey’s C-section a month later noted that she again refused a tubal ligation request made after she arrived at Madera Community Hospital.

At no time did anyone explain to her any medical justifications for tubal ligation, Jeffrey said.

Shannon Argueta sums it up:

These procedures were not medically necessary; it was his personal disgust for these women that drove him to push the surgery on them. He is of the mindset that they do not deserve to have children, they are not worthy. He is cleansing the gene pool, one inmate at a time. Seem too harsh? A little accusatory? Wrong? Nope, his own words prove that that was his mission. This doctor wanted to prevent these undesirable women from having any kids. He, and the rest of the officials involved, were their judge, jury and executioners. That is the very definition of eugenics.

Under California law, procedures like this cannot be done in a state prison without approval by a state review board of each particular case. In this case, it doesn’t appear that there was any such review process at all of the 150 or so sterilizations that were performed over the period in question. On its own that is a violation of the law, of course, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg here.  If these allegations are true, then it raises some serious questions about how things are being run in California’a prison system. Off the top, there’s the entire idea of just how voluntary something like sterilization can be in a prison environment such as this. If a doctor being provided to them, sometimes literally at the moment of birth, is telling them that a tubal ligation is going to be performed, then can we really rationally expect them to even know that they have a right to object, or for that matter even know what the doctor is talking about. Obviously, there’s some chance that there’s some shading of testimony going on here, which is why further investigation by entities outside California would seem to be warranted at the very least.

Arguetta’s outrage in her post is, I think, well justified. Whether through a direct policy or inexcusable neglect the doctor involved in these procedures was able to get away with things that he should not have been able to get away with and, in the process, brutalize the women involved in a way that nobody should have to be brutalized. Apparently, he did this because he thought it was “for their own good,” and apparently for the good of society. These are exactly the kind of procedures that California’s laws were supposed to have stopped more than 30 years ago, the fact that he was able to slip through the cracks makes one wonder just what else might be going on behind prison walls. The final though, of course, is that if this person was able to get away with this is California, one has to wonder what’s happening elsewhere in the country.

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