Prison sterilization audit ‘shocks the conscience’

Courtney Hooks, campaign and communications director of Justice Now (right), testifies at an Aug. 13, 2013, Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento on “Female Inmate Sterilization,” while staff attorney Nora Wilson looks on. — Credit: R. W. DELLINGER

California’s audit report “Sterilization of Female Inmates,” which was released June 19, “shocks the conscience” with systemic failures by the federal receiver appointed to oversee health care in the state’s prisons, according to Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Redondo Beach).

“This report documents shocking systemic failure by the Federal Receiver to ensure medical sterilization procedures were done with consent and appropriately reviewed as required by state law,” Lieu said in a statement. “Of the 144 cases of female sterilizations, 143 of them failed to receive the state mandated review by two committees composed of high-level prison medical staff…. These systemic failures are unacceptable for a procedure that is life-changing and irreversible.”

In the report, state auditor Elaine Howle said of the 144 bilateral tubal ligation cases examined, 39 were performed “following deficiencies in the informed consent process.” And in 27 cases, the inmate’s doctor had not signed the required consent form.

These sterilizations were performed between mid-2005 and mid-2013. They were done in hospitals near two women’s prisons — the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley Institution for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison. Still, prison officials were responsible for making sure that written consent was documented.

Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting broke the story, which went viral in social as well as traditional media, last July. He told The Tidings, “I had no idea of the scale and scope of California’s [sterilization] program,” which raised the specter of the Golden State continuing its well-documented history of eugenics.

From 1909 to the 1960s, an estimated 20,000 Californians — not only prisoners but so-called mentally “defectives,” certain minorities and immigrants, plus even the indigent on occasion — were forcibly sterilized.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) has sponsored legislation, passed by the state senate in May, which would keep prisons and county jails from sterilizing inmates for the purpose of birth control.

“This audit demonstrates there is a systemic problem, and implicates the entire culture,” Jackson told The Los Angeles Times. “The right to have a family is a fundamental right that each of us has. Many of these women are first-time offenders and already have families.”

The Tidings will present a detailed reaction to the state audit’s report in a future issue.     


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