Prison Eugenics in the Golden State

In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis issued a formal apology for the forced sterilization of inmates in the state’s prisons, a practice officially banned in 1979.

“To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years,” he said in a press release. “It was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it is one that must never be repeated again.”

Given the mountains of bad publicity surrounding the Golden State’s history of forced sterilization—an estimated 20,000 male and female California inmates were sterilized from 1909 to 1964—it’s easy to see why most people might have assumed that such practices were halted long ago. But new evidence suggests that coercion continued well into the twenty-first century.

This week the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting released a study claiming that from 2006 to 2010 California prison doctors performed tubal ligation surgery on at least 148 female inmates without having obtained the necessary state authorizations. Moreover, an additional one hundred violations may have occurred going back to the late 1990s.

According to Dr. Ricki Barnett, who heads the state committee tasked with authorizing the restricted surgery on a case-by-case basis, prison health administrators, doctors, and nurses seemed unaware that they needed special permission to perform tubal ligation on inmates.

The study supports its claims of unauthorized sterilizations with state documents and interviews with former prison staff and prisoners.

In 2010, Kimberly Jeffrey, 43, was an inmate at Valley State Prison for Women and was sedated for a C-section when a prison doctor pressured her to undergo a sterilization procedure, she told the Center for Investigative Reporting.

“He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’ ” Jeffrey said. “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went straight into a panic.”

Jeffrey’s medical files indicate that she rejected a prison doctor’s offer to tie her tubes made during a prenatal checkup the previous December. Was it coercive for a doctor to ask for her approval again, when she was on the operating table?

The courts would probably think so. They have ruled that similar solicitations in operating rooms were coercive, according to University of Pennsylvania law professor Dorothy Roberts. “There are specific situations where you cannot say it’s informed consent, and one of them is during childbirth or labor,” Roberts told the Center for Investigative Reporting. “No woman should give consent on the operating table.”

The write-up by the Center for Investigative Report, part of the group’s Prisons Under Pressure project, is worth reading in its entirety. The Sacramento Bee and National Review have also covered the story.

For deeper background on criminal justice and corrections, see To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice, by Bruce L. Benson, and the same author’s treatise, The Enterprise of Law: Justice without the State, as well as Changing the Guard: Private Prisons and the Control of Crime, edited by Alexander Tabarrok. For a fascinating look at an alternative approach to corrections, see “Self-Governance in San Pedro Prison,” by David B. Skarbek, in the Spring 2010 issue of The Independent Review.

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow and former Executive Editor for Acquisitions and Content at the Independent Institute and former Assistant Editor of The Independent Review.
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