California's Women Prisoners Deserve a Healthcare System That Respects Their Rights - Women's Foundation California
The California Institution for Women in Corona was one of two state prisons where female inmates were sterilized without required state approvals. (photo from Center for Investigative Reporting).
The California Institution for Women in Corona was one of two state prisons where female inmates were sterilized without required state approvals. (photo from CIR)

By Katie Egan, Program Assistant
Last month, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) released a devastating article, revealing that between 2006 and 2010 nearly 150 female prisoners in California were coerced into sterilization surgeries without required state approval. These numbers reflect documented tubal ligation surgeries performed on female prisoners during that five year period; however, CIR’s Corey G. Johnson reports that that an additional 100 women could have also been subjected to sterilization between 1997 and 2010.According to the report, pregnant women were signed up for the procedure while serving time at either the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona or the Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW) in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison. Although defenders of the program, which may have existed without any state official’s formal approval, argue that they were providing female prisoners with “the same options as women on the outside,” former inmates and prisoner advocates assert that prison doctors targeted pregnant women deemed “likely to return to prison in the future” and pressured them to agree to tubal ligations.

Stories like these are not new in California. In fact, our state has a long history with eugenics and the forced sterilization of minority and underprivileged populations. California’s eugenics programs, which sterilized some 20,000 Californians against their will between 1909 and 1963, sought to “purify” the human race by sterilizing “inferior” groups and preventing them from spreading their genes. Targeted groups included people of color, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and criminals. California’s eugenics movement was so effective that Nazi theorists used it as a model for their own sterilization programs. This inhumane practice slowed after the 1960s, but was not completely outlawed in the state until 1979.

With this tragic history in mind, CIR’s investigation begins to feel like déjà vu. The fact is prisons and jails are where we continue to house members of each of these targeted communities. Women of color, women in poverty, women who suffer mental illness and drug addiction– all of them are disproportionally represented in our prisons and jails.

This is not a coincidence. The United States – and California in particular – has been systematically imprisoning its poor people of color since the early 1980s. Time and time again, California has chosen prison and jail expansion instead of investing in programs and rehabilitative services that could keep both men and women out of the criminal justice system and leading successful lives. By continuing to punish, rather than heal the poorest and most vulnerable Californians, our state has created a society that ensnares poor people in the criminal justice system, creating a perpetual cycle of poverty that is nearly impossible for families to escape from. Poverty begets incarceration, which begets poverty, which begets incarceration – and so on and so forth.

Throughout the CIR report, former inmates subjected to tubal ligations mentioned feeling dehumanized. This is exactly the effect that prison has on individuals. Once in the criminal justice system, women (and men, for that matter) lose almost all of their rights. Even upon release, those who serve time are not only separated from their children and families, but are often barred from voting, working, finding adequate, affordable housing. In a sense, prisoners lose everything. By coercing these women into tubal ligations, prisons yet again demonstrated their ability to dehumanize and degrade poor women of color, showing complete disregard for their basic human and civil rights.

The dehumanization of impoverished people must stop. That is why the Foundation is joining with members of the California Legislative Women’s Caucus in calling for an investigation of the physicians involved in the sterilization of women prisoners and further assurances from the Department of Corrections that inappropriate procedures like this do not happen in the future.

We agree with Senators Hancock, Liu, Evans, and Jackson that there is a need for the Federal Receiver’s office to develop a health program specifically for women. The Receiver, who has been federally appointed to improve medical care in California’s prisons, should recognize that women prisoners have unique medical needs that must be addressed.  By instituting a women’s health program headed by a Director with a mandate to ensure women’s physical and mental health, we can begin to truly improve the wellbeing of women prisoners and ensure an atrocity like this does not happen again.

The Foundation also agrees that immediate action is needed to relieve the immense overcrowding in California’s women’s prisons. As of July 17th, the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) remains at 175.5 percent capacity, while CIW stands at 152.8 percent. Reducing the female inmate population is crucial to improving the state’s ability to provide quality healthcare to all incarcerated women. This can be accomplished through a variety of ways, including 1)  expanding geriatric and medical parole so that sick and elderly inmates who pose little risk to public safety can re-enter society, 2)  reopening all Community Prisoner Mother Programs and Family Foundation Programs so that prisoners can live in facilities with their young children while gaining access to rehabilitative services and other supports that help reduce recidivism and 3)  ensuring full implementation of the Alternative Custody Program, which would allow non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offenders to serve the remainder of their terms in either a residential home, a non-profit residential drug treatment program, or a transitional care facility that offers individualized services based on their needs.

By implementing these changes we can begin to create a healthcare system that truly addresses the needs of our state’s incarcerated population. We cannot continue to spend exorbitant amounts on a system that denies adequate healthcare and dehumanizes our state’s impoverished people of color. Instead, we should consider more cost-effective treatment options that will ensure that those serving time are treated humanely and have the best chances for success. A gender-focused healthcare system, as well as programs that reduce prison overcrowding and help to rehabilitate those affected by the prison system, can help make these goals a reality.

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