According to a recent article by The Center for Investigative Reporting, doctors at two California women’s prisons—the California Institute for Women in Corona and the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla (now a men’s prison)—unlawfully sterilized at least 148 women inmates between 2006 and 2010. For those of you wondering if we were actually in a dystopian novel, the answer is yes.
Federal and state laws mandate that doctors working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation receive authorization from designated health committees before performing sterilization procedures. According to state officials, no such requests were made for nearly 150 cases over the four-year period. The CIR also reports that there may have been as many as 100 similar cases since the late 1990s.
Former prisoners allege that doctors coerced them into the procedure by approaching them during pregnancy or labor, sometimes repeatedly. These doctors also appear to have targeted repeat offenders who they thought were likely to return to prison, and women with already large families. In an interview with the CIR, Christina Cordero, 34, who spent two years incarcerated for auto theft, recalled:
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. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.
Between 1997 and 2010, the state paid doctors in prisons a total of $147,460 to perform tubal ligations. But don’t be alarmed; according to Dr. James Heinrich, one of the doctors accused of illegal activity, this wasn’t as costly as you think:
Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for those unwanted children—as they procreated more.
The CIR’s discovery is only the most recent installment in a much longer history of eugenics that prominently features California. From 1909, when the state passed its first mandatory sterilization law, to 1964, more than 20,000 California men and women were sterilized. The victims were mostly considered “mentally ill” or “deficient”—overall threats to “the wellbeing of the race.” Twentieth century scientific misconceptions often led doctors to medicalize and target the poor and people of color.
The discovery also comes in the midst of widespread challenges to living conditions in California prisons, which now operate at about 155 percent capacity—an improvement from 202 percent in 2006. That year, a judge ruled that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation medical services amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, and prison health care has since been subject to the oversight of a federal receiver. Last Tuesday, 30,000 inmates in two-thirds of the state’s prisons commenced a hunger strike to protest the use of solitary confinement, which has been proven to produce and exacerbate symptoms of mental illness.
These stories of mistreatment and inhumanity in California’s prison system are not new. The evidence of them is vivid, disturbing and mounting. Yet they persist because it is far, far too easy to dehumanize the prisoners and dismiss their plights. But as inmates and activists agitate for change, inaction becomes a less viable option.