A Closer Look at Prison Sterilizations and the Doctor Said to Champion Them

Monday, February 24, 2014
Dr. James Heinrich

In the months since the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) revealed that more than 130 female inmates at two California prisons had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010 without proper approval, it has gathered string on one of the doctors in charge.

Back in July of last year, CIR reporter Corey G. Johnson wrote about Dr. James Heinrich, the top medical manager at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla from 2005 to 2008, and his involvement in tubal litigations arranged for pregnant inmates under allegedly coercive conditions.

Heinrich, himself, explained to CIR why prison sterilization made sense (after being told the doctors were paid $147,460 by the state), “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.”

California has a wicked history of forced sterilizations, male and female, dating back to the early 20th century, when the state championed the pseudo science of eugenics years before Hitler embraced it. Under the state’s 1909 sterilization law, at least 20,000 Californians in state hospitals and prisons were involuntarily sterilized by 1964. The state clamped down on forced sterilization in 1979, and in 1994 passed a law that requires a detailed approval process in prisons for “surgery not medically necessary.”

California prisons continued to sterilize inmates. CIR originally reported that 148 females had been sterilized without proper approval during the five years it studied. That number was revised down to 132 after closer examination of the records, and 74 of them were at Heinrich’s prison. Two-thirds of those surgery referrals came from Heinrich or one of his nurses and none of them had the legally-required state approval.

Heinrich retired in 2011 but continued working as a contract physician until December 2012. CIR found he left behind a record of marked increases in sterilization procedures at his prison dating from the first year he showed up. Valley State averaged 150 sterilizations a year from 2006 to 2008, six times as many as the state’s largest women’s prison, the Central California Women’s Facility.

CIR interviewed nine former inmates, reviewed confidential prison documents and poured over hundreds of pages of court and medical files in honing a profile of a doctor who not only performed surgical procedures of a dubious ethical nature, but conducted himself in an unprofessional manner while doing them.

One ex-inmate, Crystal Nguyen, described his bedside manner while undergoing vaginal exams during her pregnancy thusly:

“He would be eating popcorn all the time. Popcorn, cheese and crackers. And he would be examining while he would be eating. And to me, that’s not hygienic. . . . It was gross. It just creeped me out.”

Nguyen said Heinrich’s eating habits were well known by the staff and inmates. The doctor defended his behavior in a 2009 deposition before denying it later.

At the heart of the CIR report are allegations that the doctor pushed sterilization in some form for any manner of physical ailments. One woman, Tamika Thomas, said she asked Heinrich for birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle and was convinced by him to undergo surgery that would accomplish that by heating up her uterus. Thomas said she wasn’t told the procedure would sterilize her.

California’s miserable prison health care has been under federal court supervision since 2006. After years of forcing reforms in health care and other conditions on the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, a three-judge federal court panel gave the state a two-year reprieve last week from meeting requirements to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity.

Although many doctors, nurses and medical aides lost their jobs when the feds stepped in eight years ago, Heinrich did not.

–Ken Broder   


To Learn More:

Calif. Prison Doctor Linked to Sterilizations No Stranger to Controversy (by Corey G. Johnson, Center for Investigative Reporting)

148 California Female Prison Inmates Were Illegally Sterilized (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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