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Are California Prisons Forcibly Sterilizing Female Prisoners?

An audit of California’s prisons has revealed a startling fact – female prisoners are being sterilized without their full consent.

According to State Auditor Elaine Howle, between reporting years 2005-2006  and 2012- 2013, of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates, one-quarter of those were done without the full consent of the inmate either because the consent forms were not fully filled out or because the mandatory 30 day waiting period required by law to give patients a chance to reconsider was not observed.

Further, of the 39 women targeted for sterilization during the eight year period examined, a clear profile of the women targeted for the procedure emerged. The audit found the ‘typical sterilized woman’ had been pregnant five or more times, had low levels of education and were deemed likely to return to jail.

Two-thirds of the requests also came from one place, Valley State Prison (now a men’s facility), and were traced to a single referring doctor, Dr. James Heinrich.

State Senator Hannah Beth Jackson pointed out that the state’s own findings point to a serious problem in how the prison is handling women’s reproductive health care.

“Based upon the auditor’s report, the problem is far more systemic,” she stressed, emphasizing that the 39 sterilizations could not be ruled as simply mistakes. “We now have clear proof that the prison environment is an environment where consent simply cannot be obtained in a responsible, reliable manner for these procedures.”

Cynthia Chandler, whose non-profit, Justice Now, added that the most recent findings only confirm what female prisoners have been saying for a long time.

“We were dismissed as heretics despite having evidence abuse and illegal sterilizations were occurring,” Chandler said, stressing that her organization has long received complaints from formerly incarcerated women claiming their reproductive rights were violated. “This report feels like an incredible step and vindication for people who work toward challenging human rights abuses.”

To help protect the reproductive freedoms of California women who are incarcerated, Jackson has introduced a law that would ban sterilizations except in emergency situations or when clearly indicated due to a pressing health need.

The bill has already been passed in the California state Senate, is currently under debate in the state Assembly.

Photo Credit: Daniel Arauz

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.