This trend has, thankfully, somewhat changed, and we know much more about the experience of female inmates thanks to the works of feminist criminologists and human rights lawyers and advocates. But once in a while, a new report or study sheds light on a particularly shocking or brutal occurrence previously unknown.
In this way, the last few years have exposed several “pains of imprisonment” that harm women in unconscionable ways, particularly pertaining to their autonomy over their own sexuality and reproduction. Interviews with female inmates expose the common occurrence of sexual harassment and abuse on the part of guards. Romantic and sexual relationships between inmates and staff are, by nature, plagued by a power differential that is impossible to bridge, even when not accompanied by brutal coercion. Female reproduction is severely monitored and sanctioned; according to the ACLU, most prisons in the United States still shackle pregnant inmates, even when they are in labor.
In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a California scandal of massive proportions: the sterilization of female inmates without proper state procedures. A 2014 California Auditor examination uncovered 144 cases of tubal ligations performed in inmates between 2006 and 2010, 39 of which were performed without consent and a further 27 in which the inmates’ physicians did not sign the appropriate forms. Interviews with the inmates that had undergone the procedure reveal disturbing degrees of paternalism and pressure on the part of medical staff.
Thankfully, the California legislature has unanimously adopted SB 1135, which “would prohibit sterilization” of an inmate “except when required for the immediate preservation of life in an emergency medical situation or when medically necessary . . . to treat a diagnosed condition and certain requirements are satisfied, including that patient consent is obtained.” The bill requires special follow-up on sterilizations performed in compliance with these conditions, as well as an annual report of data on sterilizations, disaggregated by race, age, medical justification, and method of sterilization.
In approving the bill, which is now on Gov. Brown’s table, California has taken an important step away from two painful legacies: its historically dysfunctional health care system, lambasted by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata (2011) and the history of medical experimentation in inmates with dubious, or nonexistent, consent, now strictly regulated by federal law. But rather than the neglect that categorizes the former or the exploitation that categorizes the latter, the sterilizations are the manifestations of another disturbing factor: supposedly benevolent paternalism and an assumption that the sterilizations are for the benefit of the inmate herself, and perhaps of society as a whole.
A story published today on the Sacramento Bee quotes Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate, who reports having heard, back in 2007, medical staff asking inmates to agree to sterilization.
“I was like, 'Oh my God, that's not right,'" said Nguyen. "Do they think they're animals, and they don't want them to breed anymore?"
Also quoted by the Bee is Christina Cordero, who was talked into undergoing the procedure after giving birth to her son while incarcerated. “As soon as [the institution’s OB-GYN] 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. . . He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn't do it."
What these paternalistic notions have in common with medical neglect and scientific exploitation is the lack of recognition that the inmates, regardless of their respective offenses and histories, are human beings, and as such must be given at least a modicum of autonomy regarding the only thing that is still theirs: their own bodies. It is to be hoped that SB 1135 represents not only a remedy for a recently uncovered horror, but a willingness to acknowledge our shared humanity on both sides of the prison gates.