Illegal Sterilizations in Modern California Jails

Posted by Pete Shanks July 10, 2013
Biopolitical Times

Corey G. Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) published on July 7th a detailed exposé of unauthorized sterilizations of unwilling women in California jails from 2006 to 2010:

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.

Read the whole thing. (Slightly shorter, and less linked, versions were published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and Modesto Bee.) The story has been picked up in many other outlets including Time and the MSNBC All In with Chris Hayes show, to the point where it seems to be going viral.

Johnson's excellent and careful reporting has brought to national attention a scandal that some activists have already at least partially documented. Justice Now presented testimony [pdf] about it to a California Senate subcommittee on March 13, 2012, and discussed their findings at a conference in August (co-sponsored by CGS) called "Eugenics in California: A Legacy of the Past?" (video is available).

It is important to note that, as the CIR article says (links are provided to the relevant statutes), these sterilizations were illegal:

Federal and state laws ban inmate sterilizations if federal funds are used, reflecting concerns that prisoners might feel pressured to comply. California used state funds instead, but since 1994, the procedure has required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a case-by-case basis.

Yet no tubal ligation requests have come before the health care committee responsible for approving such restricted surgeries …

How could this happen?

Governor Gray Davis apologized in 2003 for California's twentieth-century sterilizations, 20,000 procedures carried out under an explicitly eugenic law. He did so quietly, via press release, and with no attempt to discover or compensate the victims. (Recognized experts on American eugenics were disappointed at the time: Paul Lombardo called it "premature" and Alexandra Minna Stern said it was "preemptive.") Now his statement seems like a sham. The fault is no longer the law, it's the failure to follow the law.

North Carolina is still struggling to pass a budget that includes compensation for its victims of eugenic sterilization. California has barely started the process of coming to terms with its troubled history.

The California state prison system is overcrowded — Governor Jerry Brown is appealing a federal court order to release inmates — and conditions are so bad that 30,000 are on hunger strike. If this report about sterilization helps to usher in a period of genuine reform, that would be wonderful.

We would still need to educate all too many people, inside and outside the jail system, about the moral and practical harm of modern eugenics. Based on some of the remarks by state officials that Johnson reported, and on some of the comments on coverage of his investigation, people slide right back into eugenic ways of thinking.

Update, July 11: Justice Now and Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) have started a petition "demanding that the state end; make amends for; and prevent sterilization abuse, period." (See Comments below for more.) Meanwhile the California Legislative Women's Caucus is demanding answers. This would be a good time to put pressure on the legislature and the Governor.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: