California Women Inmates Sterilized Without State Approval

California Women Inmates Sterilized Without State Approval

At least 148 female inmates in the California prison system between 2006 and 2010 were sterilized by tubal ligation without approval from the state. There may be 100 others who had the same procedure before that period starting in the late 1990s. The doctors who performed the procedures were paid a total $147,460, or roughly $1000 per procedure. The women who were sterilized were asked while they were pregnant and imprisoned in either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla if they wanted to have the procedure done. Now they and their advocates claim that they were coerced into the procedure.

Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate said she repeatedly heard medical staff ask women who had been jailed many times if they would consent to sterilization while she worked in the infirmary. Christina Cordero, another inmate said that Valley State’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, was relentless in speaking to her about a tubal ligation.

Heinrich defended himself by saying he was protecting women who had undergone multiple C-sections from the danger of another. He said of the $147,460, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more.”

Daun Martin, a psychologist who was the Valley State medial manager, said that some of the pregnant women who were on drugs or homeless would simply return to crime so they could use the prison’s health care: “Do I criticize those women for manipulating the system because they’re pregnant? Absolutely not. But I don’t think it should happen. And I’d like to find ways to decrease that.”

Martin denied that he had okayed the 60 or more tubal ligations performed during his tenure, while, Dr. Jacqueline Long, who ran the California Institution for Women had no comment about the surgeries while she was in charge.

Dr. Ricki Barnett, who has been in charge of the Health Care Review Committee since 2008, said:

When we heard about the tubal ligations, it made us all feel slightly queasy. 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.

Jeffrey Callison, spokesman for the state corrections department, had no comment, stating, “All medical care for inmates, and all medical files, past and present, are under the control of the Receiver’s Office.”

The receiver’s office has supervised medical care in all California prisons since 2006, and was aware that sterilizations were being performed. In September 2008, the prisoner rights group Justice Now wrote a letter to the receiver’s office that elicited a response from Tim Rougeux, the receiver’s chief operating officer. His response admitted that sterilizations were being performed at the two prisons.

It was only in 2010, after a complaint was filed with state Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale, who was the  chairwoman of the Select Committee on Women and Children in the Criminal Justice System, that Liu contacted Barnett, who investigated the hospitals and told the hospitals to stop, that there were restrictions against doing tubal ligations.

But Martin and Heinrich ignored Barnett. Martin said, “I’m sure that on a couple of occasions, (Heinrich) brought an issue to me saying, ‘Mary Smith is having a medical emergency’ kind of thing, ‘and we ought to have a tubal ligation. She’s got six kids. Can we do it?’ And I said, ‘Well, if you document it as a medical emergency, perhaps.'”

Heinrich said only women with three or more prior C-sections were asked about tubal ligations: “It was a medical problem that we had to make them aware of. It’s up to the doctor who’s delivering (your baby) … to make you aware of what’s going on. We’re at risk for not telling them.”

But former inmates Michelle Anderson and Nikki Montano said although they had undergone only one C-section, they were constantly asked about sterilization. Anderson regrets the decision, but Montano feels it helped her.

Heinrich concluded that there are hundreds of former prisoners who would testify they appreciated his health care, and is suspicious of the women who were sterilized coming forward now, saying: “They all wanted it done. If they come a year or two later saying, ‘Somebody forced me to have this done,’ that’s a lie. That’s somebody looking for the state to give them a handout. My guess is that the only reason you do that is not because you feel wronged, but that you want to stay on the state’s dole somehow.”