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Shock Report: Female Prisoners Were Sterilized in Calif. Prisons Without State Approval

"Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?"

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In both 2006 and 2010 -- and potentially during preceding years -- female prisoners were reportedly sterilized in the state of California by contracted doctors with the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The sterilizations for at least 148 women took place without government approval, according to a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a group that exposes injustices that generally go unaccounted for in American society.

These women were given tubal ligations (i.e. tubes tied), which came to a total cost of $147,460 between 1997 and 2010, according to the organization. The surgeries were assigned to pregnant women who were at two prisons in the state, and, according to inmates and former medical staff, these individuals were coerced and targeted based on the likelihood that they would return to prison in the future.

Crystal Nguyen, 28, a former inmate, said that she worked in the infirmary, where she overheard discussions going on between medical staff and other female inmates. Those who had served multiple terms were apparently targeted more often with questions about whether they would want their tubes tied.

"I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,'" Nguyen said. "Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?"

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And another inmate, Christina Cordero, 34, claims that Dr. James Heinrich, the OB-GYN at her prison, pressured her to have her tubes tied. In the end, she complied, but says that she now regrets the decision.

"As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done," she told CIR. "The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

The CIR report continues:

The allegations echo those made nearly a half-century ago, when forced sterilizations of prisoners, the mentally ill and the poor were commonplace in California. State lawmakers officially banned such practices in 1979. [...]

Federal and state laws ban inmate sterilizations if federal funds are used, reflecting concerns that prisoners might feel pressured to comply. California used state funds instead, but 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, said Dr. Ricki Barnett, who tracks medical services and costs for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp. Barnett, 65, has led the Health Care Review Committee since joining the prison receiver’s office in 2008.

“When we heard about the tubal ligations, it made us all feel slightly queasy,” Barnett said. “It wasn’t so much that people were conspiratorial or coercive or sloppy. It concerns me that people never took a step back to project what they would feel if they were in the inmate’s shoes and what the inmate’s future might hold should they do this.”

Doctors involved have denied pressuring women and have said that they only offered the procedure in cases when numerous C-sections (at least three in some cases) had been performed previously and when there was danger to the women in question. Former inmates, though, tell stories of being intensely pressured, despite repeatedly rebuffing medical professionals' attempts.

Based on California's troubling history of sterilization -- a practice that once impacted the poor, minorities, the disabled and the mentally ill -- doctors performing tubal procedures without permission from the state is certainly troubling to advocates.

In 2010, the practice was stopped at the two jails in question -- the California Institution for Women in Corona and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. Read the full report.

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