The Dirty Business of Prison Sterilization

Prison Bars

“In July of 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting published findings that 132 women in state prisons received tubal ligations between 2006 and 2010 – the majority of which were carried out by Dr. James Heinrich and done without proper state oversight.” – Al Jazeera America, April 2, 2014 (Read the Article)

When I read this article, it made me sick.  Just the premise alone of people in prisons being subjected to any coercive actions surrounding their medical care and bodies seems like some kind of bizarre reflection back to the history of eugenics and even the Nazi death camps.  During this time of Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), it is impossible not to be reminded of the horrific experiments that were performed on innocent people under the direction of Heinrich Himmler.  Certainly, the Holocaust was an unparalleled crime against faith and nature carried out on an innocent people; there is no real comparison.  But one would hope that it was a worldwide lesson that no living being should be the medical plaything of any body of authority…ever.  How could this happen in California?

California sits at the forefront of a great deal of the legislative change that is happening in the United States.  Immigration reform, Marriage Equality, boys and men of color, racial demographic changes, water rights, environmental concerns…all of these issues are central in the conversations around legislation in the state and these conversations are leading the national dialogue on the same.  The rights of people who have been through or who are currently in our corrective justice system are also part of the dialogue, but when the conversation turns to prisoner sexuality and body agency, a very real inner conflict emerges for many Americans.  What is the “value” of a body when we weigh punishment in a culture entirely built around capitalism.  Hardliners ask why should hard working, law abiding people care about prisoners let alone their sexual health? While ultra liberals are portrayed sometimes as wanting to create prison environments that would rival any country club or spa or special care facility, offering programs and care that would be inaccessible outside of detention.  But the question of forced or even coerced sterilizations, a life altering medical procedure that renders someone incapable of producing children, on people who are incarcerated takes the conversation into a whole new uncharted territory.

This particular case about sterilization begins with the questions immediately surrounding a group of women but, it is just as important to consider how men are reflected here as well.  The women involved have been violated in the most egregious manner if they were not in complete comprehension or agreement with what was being done to them, yet the rationale for the policy is guided by some damning assumptions about men.  From the same article:

“In 2003, the state Senate held two hearings to expose and apologize for the practice [of forced sterilization]. 

At the hearing, Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan professor and an expert on sterilization practices in California, said, “One of the goals … and this is critical to understanding the history of eugenics in California – was to save money: how to limit welfare and relief. And sterilization is very much tied up in this.”

When [Dr. James] Heinrich reflected on the $147,460 spent between 1997 and 2010 by the state of California on sterilizations of female prisoners, he demonstrated the mentality Stern referred to. 

“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,” Heinrich said.”

The assumptions are that these women would: a.) have only unwanted children b.) have no way to provide for them outside of public funds c.) not have a family structure in which to support them d.) not be connected to men, that is, the men who helped create these children would be absent.  In the line of thinking expressed by Dr. Heinrich, there is an assumption that the men who would father children by these women would have no sense of obligation to be involved or way to contribute to providing for them.

A significant portion of the California work around boys and men of color is focused on men who have been incarcerated.  This is restorative justice, not simply putting people “away.”  Restorative justice looks at all of the many sides of crime, but not by making excuses for people who break laws and cause harm in our society.  Rather, it seeks solutions in addition to punishment.  An important part of restorative justice is aligning formerly incarcerated men with jobs and removing barriers to their employability allowing them the resources to rebuild a productive life.  Underlying all of this work is the effort to change the assumptions about why someone is in the system, and what puts them there in the first place…changing the assumptions about boys and men of color in general.  When we look at youths (mostly men of color) being put in juvenile detention for “acting out” or eliciting behavior that would be seen as perfectly normal for an independent white male adult (Read More Here) there is no question that many are being taught to be incarcerated.  It is a crime that the system that is teaching them this way of life, then uses what they have learned as evidence against them to justify horrific practices like sterilization.  This cycle of oppression based on assumption of outcomes needs to end if there is going to be any real progress made for both communities of color and for the general population that carries the burden of our broken justice system.

There is hope.  California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has introduced a bill (SB 1135) that is one step in a lengthier and more complicated process of squashing assumptions and working to dismantle the prison industrial complex.  It is unique in that it speaks directly to the sexual health of inmates; it re-humanizes prisoners on the most personal level and seeks to give them the rights to their bodies that any living being should have.  In truth, the two (dismantling the PIC and sexuality) are linked.  Prison, as an industry, de-humanizes inmates by turning them into a commodified product…and the current trends that involve moving prisoners around for budgetary reasons and working with private, profit making incarceration agencies, makes this even clearer.  De-sexualizing prisoners is part of this commodification process.  Our ability to be sexual and express our identity through our gender and sexuality (whether that be through procreation, sexual preference or gender identity) is the most personal exclusive right that we have.  Without it, we lose an enormous part of who we are and how we are viewed by others.  Instead, lifting up the sexuality and gender of inmates is a very different approach to looking at the humanity of criminals, and it is an opportunity to re-imagine the realignment process and priorities.  Jackson’s bill is a start, and there can be more including increased protections and provisions against prison rape of both women and men (particularly young men of color – See Report: Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012), appropriate services and facilities for transgender inmates, more stringent and thorough treatment and rehabilitation of legitimately dangerous sex offenders and much more comprehensive counseling and education for prison employees.

What these sterilizations amount to is systemic rape, of which people of color in this land have been the target since the beginning of European colonization.  It is a hold over of the tools that were used by the dominating patriarchy when Eugenics was born in this country out of concepts inherited from Sir Francis Galton in the 19th Century.  This “science” (based on controlling the evolution of the human species) became the foundation for not only forced sterilizations of people with “undesirable traits”, the disabled and “other bodied” people and in some cases homosexuals, but also the basis for miscegenation laws and a wide range of practices that can only be called American ethnic cleansing.  These sterilization practices reduce prisoners to the value or liability they represent to our economy.  In a way, they are no different than slaves who were forced into sex to increase their owners worth with more children or to satisfy their selfish urges.  Sterilization is an archaic instrument in the seemingly bottomless toolbox of oppression in the United States.  It needs to be put away once and for all along with the mercury pills, tools for blood-letting and the leeches.

There will always be criminals in a modern society and they must be dealt with appropriately.  But a truly just society does not actively seek to generate criminals to maintain a profit margin.  In addition, a just society asks itself first where the missed opportunities have been to allow every person a chance to thrive; not charity but meaningful change.  Overhauling the justice system, including eradicating the possibility for medical abuses of prisoners is part of the broader equation and it is the right thing to do.  After all, didn’t we abolished trading human lives as part of the free market economy in 1865?