Decades after Prison Sterilizations Were “Banned,” State Really Does It

Monday, September 29, 2014
Dean Ed Wasserman (photo: UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism)

Progressive California still needed a law in the 21st Century to ban the sterilization of women in prison for birth control and last week they got one.

Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1135 a year after the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) revealed that dozens of female inmates had been sterilized in recent years and the practice had not ended.

Now, presumably, it has.   

California regularly sterilized women in institutions for much of the 20th Century before deciding that having a eugenics program that inspired Nazis in Germany probably wasn’t a good thing and essentially banned the practice.

Or so the public was led to believe.

Under the state’s 1909 sterilization law, at least 20,000 California men and women 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,” including penal implants, vasectomies, breast reductions and tubal ligations.

That apparently wasn’t clear enough. A loophole allowed doctors to sterilize inmates when state funds paid for it, according to CIR.

SB 1135 bans “sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility.” The law also adds transparency to the process by requiring jails and prisons to report surgeries online. It takes affect on January 1.

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 Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, a prison where Dr. James Heinrich was the top medical manager from 2005-2008. Two-thirds of those surgery referrals came from Heinrich or one of his nurses and none of them had the legally-required state approval.

The California State Auditor confirmed in June much of what CIR reported. In response, J. Clark Kelso, the federal receiver put in charge of prison health care by the courts in 2009, made a tacit admission that improper sterilizations were still being performed when he said the prisons had made “strides toward the avoidance of sterilization of female patient-inmates.”

The new law might help.

–Ken Broder 


To Learn More:

California Bans Coerced Sterilization of Female Inmates (by Corey G. Johnson, The Center for Investigative Reporting)

California Governor Signs Inmate Sterilization Ban (by Curtis Skinner, Reuters)

A Closer Look at Prison Sterilizations and the Doctor Said to Champion Them (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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

Sterilization of Female Inmates (California State Auditor) (pdf)

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