By NICK CHILES
Doctors in California violated state rules by forcing at least 150 female inmates to be sterilized between 2006 and 2010, according to a fascinating story by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.
While it wouldn’t have been as shocking to read about force sterilizations in the early 1900’s, when the government and the medical community regularly did horrifying things to people of color, this was going on just three years ago.
Let me repeat that: Three years.
The story by the Center for Investigative Reporting—an independent nonprofit group that has become essential in the world of journalism now that budget cuts have decimated the practice of investigative reporting in our nation’s newsrooms—says doctors contracted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were paid $147,460 by California from 1997 to 2010 to perform tubal ligations on female inmates. The records suggest that as many as 250 women might have undergone the tubal ligation procedure—many of them under coercion.
The story by writer Corey G. Johnson said 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.
Doctors apparently targeted women deemed likely to return to prison in the future.
The story quotes Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, who told the Center she would often overhear 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 of those pressured was Christina Cordero, 34, who spent two years in prison for auto theft and who gave birth to a son in October 2006. She told CIR that while she was a Valley State inmate, Dr. James Heinrich, the institution’s OB-GYN, 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,” Cordero said. “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”
Though she agreed to the procedure, Cordero, released in 2008 and now living in Upland, said, “Today, I wish I would have never had it done.”
And check out what Heinrich, 69, said in his defense: He told CIR that he was providing an important service to poor women who faced health risks because of multiple Caesarean sections—and he was saving the state a lot of money.
Referring to the $147,460 the state paid to the doctors, he said, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”
Clearly, Dr. Heinrich felt that he was in a position to dictate what should happen to these women and their bodies, even to the extent of deciding when they should no longer be able to create life.
Ours is a nation that imprisons its citizens far more than any other place on Earth—and once we lock them up, we cease to look at the inmates as actual human beings.
It goes without saying that most of the women who had to endure this horror were women of color.
As Johnson pointed out in his CIR report, California isn’t new to this sort of thing. California and 31 other states had compulsory sterilization laws for minority groups, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and criminals, who were singled out as inferior and sterilized to prevent them from spreading their genes in a practice known as eugenics. In fact, a total of approximately 20,000 women and men in California were stripped of the ability to reproduce, which put Cali at the top of the list of the nation’s most prolific sterilizers—and which led Nazi Germany to California in the 1930s to seek the advice of the state’s eugenics leaders.
When you’re on speed dial with the Nazis to talk about your expertise in eugenics, you have officially earned the label of “monster.”
After state hearings in 2003, then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Gov. Gray Davis issued formal apologies, with Gray releasing a statement that said, “Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again.”
Uh, except that it actually was repeated again and was actually going on while Davis’ office was typing up his statement.
Daun Martin, a licensed psychologist and the top medical manager at Valley State Prison from 2005 to 2008, said the surgeries were an empowerment issue for female inmates, giving them access to the same options as women on the outside. In other words, they were grateful.
Martin 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.”
But Kimberly Jeffrey doesn’t sound so grateful. She told CIR she was pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section in 2010 at Valley State. She had failed a drug test while out on parole for a previous series of thefts.
So her terrible crime against humanity that sent her back to prison was violating her parole.
Jeffrey said she was horrified by the pressure to undergo sterilization and she resisted. She said no one explained to her any medical justifications for tubal ligation. The experience still haunts her and has moved her to regularly speak to groups seeking to improve conditions for female prisoners. She has even traveled to Sacramento to lobby state legislators.
State prison officials “are the real repeat offenders,” Jeffrey said. “They repeatedly offended me by denying me my right to dignity and humanity.”
Until this country starts seeing inmates as actual human beings, something tells me we’re going to continue to hear about horrifying stories like this.
1. Disgusting Disrespect of Children in Meridian, Miss. Will Make You Want to Cry
2. Newt Gingrich To Poor Black Mothers And Children: Pick Up a Broom, Lazy Asses.
3. The American Obsession with Imprisonment is a National Shame—and a Parent’s Nightmare
4. Dozens Of Children Serving Life In Prison—How Do We Let This Happen?
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.