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California bans coerced sterilization of female inmates

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State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, spearheaded a bill banning sterilization as a form of birth control for California’s women prisoners.

Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the Oakland, California-based prisoner rights group Justice Now, is not usually short on words. But the news was big and the journey long.

Late Thursday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning sterilization as a form of birth control for the state’s female prisoners. The sweeping ban covers county jails, state prisons and other detention centers, providing safeguards against medical abuses that have plagued the state for decades.

“What a relief,” said Chandler, who’s also an adjunct professor at Golden Gate University School of Law. “Now there can be some hope that California can move forward from its history. It’s about time.”

SB 1135 came in response to The Center of Investigative Reporting’s disclosure in July 2013 that more than 130 female inmates had received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules from 2006 to 2010.

The new law covers all surgeries on prison inmates that destroy reproductive capacity, including tubal ligations and hysterectomies. In life-threatening situations, it mandates that inmates first receive extensive counseling from independent physicians. The law adds a layer of public accountability in those cases: Local jails and state prisons are required to track and report the surgeries online.

The law, which takes affect Jan. 1, also offers protection to employees who report violations and abuses.

Chandler and Justice Now have been trying to draw attention to the state’s history of prison-approved sterilizations for eight years, through organized workshops, letters, emails, tweets and Facebook posts.

Between 1909 and 1964, California stripped about 20,000 women and men of their ability to reproduce. Then-compulsory sterilization laws targeted minorities, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and criminals. State lawmakers officially banned those forced sterilization practices in 1979.

But dozens of surgeries continued to be approved by California prison doctors through a loophole that permitted state funds to pay for them.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates told CIR that prison medical staff pressured women into the procedures, targeting inmates deemed likely to return to prison in the future and those with numerous children. The investigation uncovered a conscious effort by doctors and administrators to break the rules, and data revealed hundreds of other inmates received hysterectomies, ovary removal and other sterilizing procedures, sometimes under questionable circumstances.

A state audit in June blasted state and federal oversight, citing illegal sterilization surgeries and violations of the state’s informed consent law.

Of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found, more than a quarter were done without evidence of the required consent. Fifty white women, 53 Latino women, 35 black women and six women classified as “other” received the procedure. All of them had been jailed at least once. Most read at less than a high school level.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, who worked with Chandler and her group to fashion the bill, garnered wide bipartisan support. Not a single lawmaker in the Senate or Assembly voted against the bill.

“Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent is unacceptable, and violates our most basic human rights,” Jackson said in a statement. “This bill will help ensure that forced or coerced sterilizations never occur in our jails and prisons, and I’m very pleased that the Governor has signed it into law.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to comment. A spokesman for the federal receivership overseeing state prison health care said the office is “extremely pleased.”

Chandler said she and Justice Now plan to educate inmates on their new rights and monitor how the law is being rolled out. She also said more needs to be done on behalf of women who were sterilized previously.

“People who were sterilized during labor and delivery should be notified because we don’t have confidence they all know what happened … or understood the magnitude of what happened,” she said.

Historians and advocates alike lauded the efforts of Justice Now and Jackson while urging continued vigilance.

“One would hope that this means, ‘Never again.’ But I also think we can’t sit down complacently now and say, ‘Well, this is taken care of,’ ” said Alexandra Minna Stern, a professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on California sterilization. “Without oversight, it’s possible another loophole could emerge.”

This story was edited by Amy Pyle. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick.