California’s Illegal Prison Sterilizations Can’t Be Fixed With More Regulation




The Sacramento Bee is reporting that “Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals.” Doctors routinely broke the law to perform the procedures, while the state worked around the law to pay for them. The case demonstrates how futile it is to lock people in cages and then expect laws to protect them from predation.

It may be difficult to fully sympathize with Christina Cordero, who it sounds like showed up for her two-year prison sentence for auto theft pregnant with her fifth child. It seems to make sense to offer this woman tubal ligation, as the doctor did. That she says now that she regrets the procedure makes me wonder what she would do with a sixth kid.

But the point is that when you’re incarcerated, the line between being offered and coerced gets blurry. And that not so long ago, the line was run over completely and women were forcibly sterilized on the regular.

The most obvious conclusion is that we need tougher laws to protect inmates. But there were laws in place to keep this from happening, which were consistently broken or worked around. First, the workaround. It’s illegal to pay for inmate sterilizations with federal funds. The goal is to prevent prisoners from feeling pressured. So California just used state funds instead.

Then, the disregard:

Since 1994 the procedure has required approval from top medical officials in Sacramento on a case-by-case basis.

Yet no tubal ligation requests have come before the health care committee responsible for approving such restricted surgeries.

Daun Martin, the Valley State Prison medical manager, said she and her staff had discovered the procedure was restricted five years earlier. Someone had complained about the sterilization of an inmate, Martin recalled. That prompted Martin to research the prison’s medical rules.

Martin told CIR that she and Heinrich began to look for ways around the restrictions. Both believed the rules were unfair to women, she said.

“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.'”

There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense about this. First, you have to wonder why the state would not offer inmates Paragard instead. It’s cheaper, very effective, and lasts 5 years.

Which is what Barbara Harris does. She runs Project Prevention, which pays women with drug addiction to get IUDs, or get sterilized.

After Barbara adopted four drug-addicted babies from the same drug-addicted woman she tried to get a law passed which forced long-term birth control on female drug addicts. It was only she failed to get the law passed that she came up with this kick-ass, private, voluntary solution.

This is the kind of solution we’ll start to see more of if we deny people the opportunity to legislate when they should be innovating.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of room for innovation in prison, which is one more reason why California needs to continue to deal with its overincarceration problem. Numbers are down from when California declared its prison overcrowding a state of emergency and began shipping inmates off to private prisons in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. The Supreme Court has ordered California to reduce the prison population to 137.5% of design capacity by the end of 2013. This is to deal with the state’s “unconstitutionally poor health care delivery.” Apparently they can buy them sterilizations but not much else.

Putting people in cages is a human rights violation itself, which leads to many other violations, including coercive sterilizations, rape, forced feedings and more. Women who give birth in prison often have to do so shackled to their beds. A Pittsburg woman and her fetus died in jail from pneumonia as a result of medical neglect.

Prison and shackles should be reserved for only those people who pose an immediate, legitimate threat to others’ physical safety. Giving a state carte blanche to throw non-violent people in prison and then trying to constrain how they’re treated is a fool’s errand.

Social problems like violent, drug-addicted women having lots of kids require cooperative, voluntary, social solutions like Project Prevention. State problems like an incarceration rate that is the highest in the world requires totally rethinking how and why we put people in prison. As this case demonstrates, trying to legislate how prisoners are treated is nowhere near sufficient.

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