Hundreds of female inmates have been sterilized in California prisons, all without mandated state approval and despite that forced sterilizations have been banned since the 1970s.
Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation apparently conducted tubal ligation sterilizations on nearly 150 women during 2006-2010, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) discovered, according to The Sacramento Bee. Specifically, 148 women underwent tubal ligations; an additional 100 also likely underwent the procedures going back as far as the late 1990s, state documents and interviews reveal.
Physicians paid by the state received some $147,460 during 1997-2010 to perform the sterilization procedures, according to database of contracted medical services for state prisoners The Sacramento Bee reported. The women, who were incarcerated at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla (which, at the time, was a women’s prison) were scheduled for surgery while imprisoned and pregnant.
Former inmates and prisoner advocates assert that prison medical staff coerced certain female inmates—those likeliest to be re-imprisoned—to undergo sterilization by tubal ligation, The Sacramento Bee reported.
Crystal Nguyen, 28, a former Valley State Prison inmate, who also worked in the facility’s infirmary in 2007, said she routinely overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served more than one term to agree to sterilization. “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?” according to The Sacramento Bee.
Another former inmate from the same facility said Dr. James Heinrich, an Ob-Gyn at the facility routinely pressured her to undergo 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, according to The Sacramento Bee. “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.” Although Cordero relented and finally agreed to the procedure she says, “Today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
In an interview with CIR, Heinrich argued that he provided a critical service to underprivileged women, he denied ever having pressured the women, and he said the money he received was minimal. “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money,” said Heinrich, “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
Daun Martin, a licensed psychologist, 73, and the top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008 denied approving the procedures. Meanwhile, 60 tubal ligations were conducted at Valley State while he was in charge, according to state contracts database data, The Sacramento Bee reported.
Federal and state laws ban federally funded inmate sterilizations; however, California used state funds for the procedure. Since 1994, sterilization procedures have required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a procedure-by-procedure basis. While no such requests have been presented, said Dr. Ricki Barnett, who tracks medical services and costs for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp., the receiver’s office knew about the sterilizations, according to The Sacramento Bee.
Heinrich said he offered the procedures to inmates who were pregnant and who had undergone at least three prior C-sections. Heinrich said that, for these women, more pregnancies would be dangerous and told the CIR that scar tissue within the uterus could tear and lead to significant blood loss and, possibly, even death. “It was a medical problem that we had to make them aware of,” Heinrich said. “It’s up to the doctor who’s delivering (your baby) … to make you aware of what’s going on. We’re at risk for not telling them.”
Michelle Anderson gave birth while at Valley State and said that although she only underwent one prior C-section, she was repeatedly pressured to undergo tubal ligation. Nikki Montano tells a similar story, noting that she underwent only one prior C-section, yet was pushed toward tubal ligation, according to CIR. “I figured that’s just what happens in prison—that that’s the best kind of doctor you’re going get,” Montano said. “He never told me nothing about nothing.” She agreed to the surgery.
Kimberly Jeffrey says that while sedated, strapped, and being prepared for a C-section in 2010 at Valley State, she was pressured to undergo tubal ligation. She resisted, according to CIR. “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.” Today, Jeffrey is an advocate and lobbyist, speaking to groups working for improved conditions for female prisoners. “Being treated like I was less than human produced in me a despair,” she told CIR.