CIR Prison Investigation Opens Another Chapter on Sterilization of Women in U.S.

By Rachel Walden |

We learned this week of an appalling story involving coerced sterilization of women — an issue that never seems to disappear completely from view despite a long and painful history.

The Center for Investigative Reporting found that at least 148 female inmates in two California prisons were sterilized between 2006 to 2010 — and there may be 100 more incidents dating back to the late 1990s.

Due to supposedly strict limits on sterilization of inmates, state approval was supposed to be obtained prior to these procedures. CIR reports that not only were approvals not obtained, but former inmates report being coerced into agreeing to sterilization.

CIR reporter Corey G. Johnson writes:

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, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard 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,’ ” Nguyen, 28, said. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

Pressure was applied particularly to women with multiple children, and doctors apparently tried to bypass the required approval process. CIR reports that when Daun Martin, the Valley State Prison medical manager between 2005 and 2008, became aware of the restrictions, she and the prison’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, worked around them:

“I’m sure that on a couple of occasions, (Heinrich) brought an issue to me saying, ‘Mary Smith is having a medical emergency’ kind of thing, ‘and we ought to have a tubal ligation. She’s got six kids. Can we do it?'” Martin said. “And I said, “Well, if you document it as a medical emergency, perhaps.'”

The story prompted The Sacramento Bee to call for a full review into whether “anyone ought to have been disciplined,” and to “make sure all the necessary safeguards are now in place.”

Forced sterilization is unfortunately nothing new in the United States: 33 states at one time allowed it for “eugenic” purposes, often targeting people of color and people with mental illnesses.

The phrase “Mississippi appendectomy” has come to describe much of this abuse, referring to the sterilization of poor black women — especially in the South — who were sterilized without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge.

Back in 2002, Oregon’s governor issued an apology for forced sterilizations carried out on women who were in state care (including, according to one article, “wayward teenage girls”). North Carolina only formally repealed its last forced sterilization law in 2003. The Winston-Salem Journal did a detailed series on these abuses in 2002. West Virginia repealed a law allowing sterilization of those deemed “mentally incompetent” just a few months ago, and it just took effect.

While these states tend to claim that sterilization abuses stopped in the late 1970s, political fighting continues in many states about whether to compensate and how to recognize victims.

Where laws have ended forced sterilization practices, however, it appears that coercion has continued to thrive.

CIR asks that anyone with knowledge of the sterilization abuses in California prisons — whether as a victim, family member, or medical or prison employee — to share their experience via this form or to contact CIR’s Corey G. Johnson directly (916-504-4085, ext. 202 or cjohnson AT cironline.org).

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