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?

Conversations About Masculinity – Starving Men

“When I was a little boy, there was a point at which my dad stopped kissing me and holding me.  He was very clear that I couldn’t do that anymore…it was time for me to be a man.  I was 9.” – Story from an anonymous man

Hands of the poor

How many men can tell this story?  I was reminded of recently hearing this from a colleague when reading Mark Greene’s article in The Good Men Project “The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer. We are hurting our boys and men.  More than any blunt force, or assault, or simple neglect…we are actively and systematically damaging our boys, men and male identified people.  We surround them with images of “manliness” that celebrate force and control and demonizes compliance and emotion. Above all, we are hurting them in one of the most basic ways possible; and we are doing it without laying a hand on them. Literally.

When I read about trauma in men, I realize that I am reading about something that is sometimes as hard to pin down as gender itself.  It may look simple on the surface, but like gender, trauma may have fairly easy to see external signifiers, while at the same time it also has very complex, personal and individual internalizations.  In some of the work happening around healthcare and public policy, people are looking at trauma as a major factor in contributing to the outcomes, or rather the poor outcomes for boys and men of color.  The language is turning to “trauma informed care” (See: The National Center for Trauma Informed Care) and “school based health centers” specializing in addressing trauma in a way that will at once allow young victims to get what they need (care and education) in a context that factors in those cultural elements that have most held them back.  This isn’t just about people of color however.  In the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study done in 2012 on Tarpon Springs, FL, the predominantly white population in this small Gulf Coast community benefited to learn about the links to adult challenges (diabetes, heart disease) that can have their origins in childhood trauma (ACEs Too High Blog.)  Trauma is real for everyone who experiences it and it has deep impact on their lives regardless of both race and gender.

However, there is one kind of trauma that men in America experience we should be exploring much more deeply.  It has no official name at this point and it is not as simple as pointing to a direct victimization or something that is clearly outside of our traditionally based realm of moral constructs.  It is imbedded in the other traumas that get primary attention.  This trauma is a sustained, cultural damage that we endorse as a society and therefore will need much greater effort to combat.  Starvation by touch or what I would call culturally imposed skin hunger.  By forbidding touch, particularly touch between males, men in our culture experience life in a world devoid of unconditional human contact.  They are in essence ‘starving’ for physical contact and most of them don’t even realize it.  In an earlier blog post (Conversations About Masculinity – part 1), I described how American men are taught to experience touch as an exchange and how this “commodification of touch” doesn’t allow most men to experience touch outside of the experience of sex, gender stereotypes and power dynamics.  The most extreme result is sometimes a complete absence of touch experienced in the male life.  There are numerous studies that point to what happens when infants are denied touch…how they fail to thrive and develop (here is a great article from Pediatrics & Child Health.)  But this need does not actually change through life, hence the popularity of massage therapy and other ways in which adults experience human contact for a price.  When we  are regularly denied the most common and essential life sustaining elements of existence (food, water, light) we experience trauma.  Studying anatomy and physiology, one learns a great deal about how the body can’t actually distinguish between types of stress; how in fact, on an emotional level, the body experiences a punch in the face the same way it experiences the loss of a job (outside of the possible broken bones and blood vessels.)  If the body then cannot make the distinction between these kinds of broad differences, then why would it be able to distinguish between the more subtle trauma experienced surviving sexual assault and when it is denied loving human contact?

Where Does the Trauma Show

The US Department of Veterans Affairs has a very impressive section on their website that explores trauma and stress in relation to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) On this landing page they list any number of signs of PTSD and we are familiar with most of them in the context of those who have experienced war (sleep disturbances, anxiety, extreme behavior, etc.) But looking at the list of emotional disturbances, presents a very surprising parallel:

  • Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad
  • Feeling shocked, numb, and not able to feel love or joy
  • Avoiding people, places, and things related to the event
  • Being irritable or having outbursts of anger
  • Becoming easily upset or agitated
  • Blaming yourself or having negative views of oneself or the world
  • Distrust of others, getting into conflicts, being over-controlling
  • Being withdrawn, feeling rejected, or abandoned
  • Loss of intimacy or feeling detached

When we see the way in which men in America react to physical intimacy that is not connected to sex (this even goes for same gender loving men), many of these same reactions are present.  How many times do we see an angry reaction from a man who feels another man has gotten too physically close? How often to we see men avoid physical contact?  How easy is it to see men as being cold or numb to affection.  The comparison between how men react to being culturally denied touch and other types of trauma is easy and disturbing.

Some of the most obvious evidence of  trauma resulting from the demonization of touch in America is in the way men do express themselves physically.  The extremes to which some men will go so that they are not in physical contact with another man can be comical if not sad; whether it be a crowded subway or a party game.  If an embrace or a handshake with another man lasts “too long” the defense systems are deployed and the contact is broken, often accompanied by a verbal posturing to assert one’s non touch defined maleness (“I’m no homo”, etc.)  But paralleling the actions that are sometimes seen in those who suffer abuse, the reaction can be significantly beyond the perceived affront.  One could draw this kind of parallel between many different types of trauma (the child of the alcoholic who becomes an alcoholic/ the boy who is chronically denied platonic touch and becomes a rapist, etc.) Of course this is not science (yet) but it may be an indicator of one way that we can look at how the lack of touch for men, manifests as a trauma reaction in every day life.

Another indicator is language.  Men are taught to avoid language that points toward affectionate contact with one another. Men do not use words such as: caress, stroke, hold, embrace either with each other or in reference to each other.  These are words (if they are used at all) that are reserved for intimate sexual settings only.  This points to the most damaging indicator of gendered skin hunger creating a trauma response in American men: sexuality.  It is easy to look at abuse and rape as ways in which men are disconnected from authentic sexual relationships, but it is more difficult when we start to actually explore what men are seeking in their sexual relationships whether they be gay or straight.  Even just the vast preoccupation of our culture with sex contrasted with the body shaming that we engage in speaks volumes about a complete disconnect with how men are experiencing their physicality.

Regardless of scientific evidence, there is no denying that the touch languages expressed by most men in America do not come from healthy places of self-esteem or security in one’s masculinity.  Some may claim that as ‘animals’ men are compelled to prove themselves and display their dominance over one another and those around them, hence the reluctance to interact physically without challenging the other male(s).  But then what of the other ability of male animals to groom one another and sleep with and enjoy each other’s bodies as expressions of comfort and safety and belonging?

How we can fix it

If we can look at the effects of culturally imposed skin hunger as a real trauma then we must look at real trauma solutions to help men recover from it.  Creating safe spaces for men to explore touch with one another; redefining verbal and physical language; establishing a new set of criteria for acceptable physical expressions that are not based in narrow, 19th century stereotypes or 21st century media-types.  Men are exploring options through support groups and online conversations.  But still, the cultural standard is the “strong man” image; the stoic, independent and unflappable warrior.

As a black man in America, I am also aware that men of color are among the most guilty of perpetuating culturally imposed skin hunger.  The problem for men of color however is that changing this environment is dependent upon dismantling a concept of success built upon restrictive, heteronormative social mores.  This goes deeper and involves exploring the whole dynamic of masculinity as a survival mechanism in post colonial cultural structures.  I am convinced that the changes that have to happen with all men will need to occur both in the world surrounding us and inside of our hearts.  Through some of the work around trauma in general, getting stories out in the public without shaming men, exposing the human vulnerability of men may allow for a different external dialogue.  But getting into the hearts of men will be a much greater challenge.  This will have to come from nurturing better environments within families and communities and by letting go of fear based cultural norms.  In a world where people are actually starving for dietary nourishment, why would we let others go hungry for human contact when the solution doesn’t require either an act of Congress or a budget.  The only real cost involved in feeding American men what they most need is an open heart.

Websites on Trauma

Articles on Touch (from Mark Greene at Good Men Project)