In May of 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled with “undoubted, grave concern” that the mass overcrowding and terrible conditions inside the state of California’s prison system constituted inhumane treatment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
In that decision, Justice Kennedy wrote:
“Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.”
Just how badly the state of California violated its prisoners’ right to dignity is still being unveiled.
A blockbuster report published this past weekend by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) revealed that doctors contracted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had sterilized 150 women in the state prison system from 2006 to 2010 without adequate approvals and often with a questionable degree of informed consent from the women being operated on.
The state may have sterilized more than 100 more women in violation of prison rules during the decade preceding 2006.
Overall, the state spent $147,460 on sterilizations, according to the CIR, despite the fact that California in 1979 outlawed the performance of such procedures without the consent of a board of state medical officials.
The board in question never granted approvals for the sterilizations.
Not only did CDCR doctors fail to go through the proper bureaucratic channels, but evidence also indicates they performed these procedures without the knowledge of the women they sterilized.
Justice Now, a prisoners’ rights group that started making inquiries into the CDCR’s sterilization policy back in 2007, has documented 10 cases in which prisoners were sterilized without informed consent.
Justice Now cofounder and board director Cynthia Chandler tells TakePart that the 10 women in question are all women of color, and that they all went in for unrelated surgeries.
“One needed surgery for a hernia,” says Chandler. “Another went in to have an ovarian cyst removed, and the doctors took her healthy ovary as well.”
In the case of Kimberly Jeffrey, not only did prison doctors sterilize her without proper consent from state officials, they did so against her explicit wishes.
Jeffrey provided medical records to the CIR, showing that in 2010 she repeatedly refused to consent to doctors to do a “tubal ligation” in advance of her giving birth inside prison.
When the day came to deliver, however, while Jeffrey was under the influence of powerful anesthesia, doctors pressured her to change her mind.
“He said, ‘So we’re going to be doing this tubal ligation, right?’ ” Jeffrey told the CIR of her prison doctor. “I’m like, ‘Tubal ligation? What are you talking about? I don’t want any procedure. I just want to have my baby.’ I went into a straight panic.”
Chandler says she fears the incidents uncovered by Justice Now and the CIR may be indicative of widespread, systemic abuses.
“We’d like formal public hearings over these sterilizations to understand how extensive the practice was or is,” she says. “We’re still hearing rumors about these procedures. We have had direct conversations with hundreds of women in prison, and we fear that this is ongoing. We don’t have any commitments from the state that they intend to stop this.”
Justice Now has helped draft legislation—called the Defense Against Forced Sterilization Bill—to formally end the policy of sterilizing inmates for the purpose of birth control.
“It would also require that people who are sterilized for medical reasons receive second opinions from outside the CDCR,” explains Chandler. “At the least, this would improve informed consent.”
So far, however, the bill has yet to find a legislator willing to sponsor it in the California State Congress.
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