Between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 female inmates were sterilized by doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Though there was no official state approval for the tubal ligations—commonly known as having ones “tubes tied,” a procedure in which the fallopian tubes are blocked or cut, permanently sterilizing the individual—the state is recorded as having paid doctors $147,460 to perform ligations between 1997 and 2010.
According to inmates and prisoner advocates, women who underwent the surgery (while incarcerated at the California Institution for Women in Corona or the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla) were coerced into agreeing to tubal ligation. The women were signed up for the procedure while they were pregnant—inmates who had served multiple prison sentences or had several children were suggested for the operations.
Though state funds for tubal ligations have been restricted since 1994—requiring approval from a health care committee and investigation into each individual case—doctors continued to perform the ligations under the assumption that they didn’t need permission. Officials claimed that the operations were performed to benefit the health of women who had undergone multiple C-sections; women were told that the ligations would be empowering, putting them on equal footing as women on the outside.
However, women who underwent the ligations stated that they had only had one C-section, were repeatedly pressured into agreeing to surgery and were not told why the surgeries were considered necessary. One inmate was pushed by a doctor to agree to ligation while sedated and strapped to a surgical table. Though in an altered state of consciousness, she successfully resisted—records show that doctors had tried talking her into ligation twice previously, without providing any reason or justification. Other ligations were pressured for while women were undergoing labor—which would be illegal in a federal prison, and has been ruled coercive, as the trauma of labor can impair a woman’s decision-making process.
Corey G. Johnson—the reporter who broke the ligations story for the Center for Investigative Reporting—told me that interviewing the women who had undergone the ligations was an at-times grueling process due to the suffering they had withstood.
“The women have expressed sadness, mostly, with dashes of anger and reluctance,” he explained. “Prison is not a happy place, and many of the women I spoke with experienced various traumas while on the inside. It hasn’t been easy reliving those moments.”
Questioned about the ligations by Johnson, officials claimed that the $147,460 the state spent on the procedures was minimal “compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children—as they procreated more.”
Johnson relayed that the public and governmental reaction to the story has been massive:
“The public’s response has been overwhelming. Strong outrage for the most part—with some counter voices of support for the doctors involved. The interest has crossed gender, religious, political and geographic lines… Reaction from governmental actors has been what I expected. Lawmakers called for investigations. The federal office in charge of prison healthcare told me they thought the story was fair. They’re now responding to legislative questioning. And the state correction department—where these surgeries sprung from—has been quiet and virtually non-responsive.”
Forced sterilizations of prisoners, the poor and the mentally ill were only officially banned in California in 1979. From 1909 to 1964, California was the United States’ top sterilizer, forcing surgery on over 20,000 men and women under a statewide eugenics program so successful that even the Nazis asked for California’s advice in the 1930s.
Much like the justifications given by the Valley State officials above, the reasoning behind California’s early eugenics program was to save the state money by reducing welfare and relief. But California was by no means the only state running a eugenics program on its citizens—32 states in the US passed laws allowing forcible sterilization in the early part of the 20th century, beginning with Indiana in 1907; by 1979 over 60,000 Americans had been sterilized.
The dark history of America’s eugenics programs is only now being publicly re-assessed. 2003 saw California’s then-Governor Gray Davis issue a formal apology for the program. Some states, like North Carolina, are considering reparations.
With the old wounds of California’s history freshly re-opened, the state is calling for an open investigation of what happened at the California Institution for Women and Valley State. But for the women who underwent ligation, the damage is already permanent.