California Just Ended One of America's Most Despiciable Prison Practices

California Just Ended One of America's Most Despiciable Prison Practices
Source: AP
Source: AP

California Gov. Jerry Brown just signed into law a measure that would forbid prisons from sterilizing inmates without obtaining proper permission.

The bill, which received unanimous support from the state's assembly and Senate, was introduced earlier this year following scrutiny from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) as well as a state audit of the prison system.

"Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent is unacceptable, and violates our most basic human rights," state Democratic Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the bill's author, said in a statement.

The numbers: If you're surprised that legislation like this is necessary in 2014, you're not alone. But sterilization of prisoners has become a big issue in California thanks to a 2013 CIR investigation that found that nearly 150 female inmates were sterilized by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation from 2006 to 2010.

These weren't done in secret or anything, but inmates who talked to CIR alleged that prison officials coerced them into undergoing the procedure. 

"As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it," one told CIR. "He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn't do it."

An audit in June found that out of 144 sterilizations of women between 2005 and 2011, 39 cases did not involve getting proper consent.

The history: The horrifying nature of nonconsensual sterilization recalls a dark period of California's past, in which the eugenics movement produced a 1909 state law that allowed sterilization of the "feeble-minded." A University of Michigan report found that those sterilizations, which remained legal for seven decades, were applied disproportionately to Latino populations.

Now, sterilization is a common form of birth control for American couples, with 27% of women and 10% of men undergoing procedures, according to the Guttmacher institute. There's a big difference between making a personal contraceptive decision, though, and getting pressured into an operation by doctors or prison officials.

If the new law works as intended, California can move onto some of its myriad of prison problems. Medical care in the state's prisons has been under federal supervision since 2006, according to Reuters, and taxpayers are on the hook for $62,300 a year per inmate.

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Matt Connolly

Matt has written for Mother Jones, the Washington Examiner and Chicago Public Radio among many others. He's a resident of Washington, D.C., but much like Bruce Springsteen and pork roll he is a product of New Jersey.

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