California prisons have been sterilizing women for years

Yesterday the Sacramento Bee published a devastating (if unsurprising) article from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealing that, between 2006 and 2010, 148 female prisoners were illegally sterilized by force. Corey G. Johnson writes:

At least 148 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules during those five years – and there are perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s, according to state documents and interviews.

From 1997 to 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the procedure, according to a database of contracted medical services for state prisoners.

The women were signed up for the surgery while they were pregnant and housed at either the California Institution for Women in Corona or Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, which is now a men’s prison.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” said Nguyen, 28. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

One former Valley State inmate who gave birth to a son in October 2006 said the institution’s OB-GYN, Dr. James Heinrich, repeatedly pressured her to agree to a tubal ligation.

“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,” said Christina Cordero, 34… “He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”

…[And] Kimberly Jeffrey says she was pressured by a doctor while sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section in 2010, during a stint at Valley State.

Such coercive sterilizations aren’t just unethical–they’re blatantly illegal. Given our country’s shameful history of eugenics, strict laws govern how and when doctors can sterilize patients: as the Bee article notes, force may not be employed and consent cannot be obtained during labor. Yet, once again, the same groups targeted by forced sterilization campaigns of the 19th and 20th centuries–poor women, women of color, disabled women, trans people–and now most vulnerable to incarceration are again under attack.

Want more information about forced sterilization and how gender policing is used to justify prison spending? Check out the four-part Gender Responsive Prison Expansion and Eugenics video series from Justice Now, the group credited with first exposing this abuse (where, full disclosure, I’ve worked):

Gender Responsive Prison Expansion and Eugenics Series Part 1: Eugenics from Justice Now on Vimeo.

Gender Responsive Prison Expansion and Eugenics Series Part 2: Reproductive Freedom from Justice Now on Vimeo.

Gender Responsive Prison Expansion and Eugenics Series Part 3: Sterilization During Childbirth in Prison–A Testimonial by Kimbe from Justice Now on Vimeo.

Gender Responsive Prison Expansion and Eugenics Series Part 4: The Destruction of Reproductive Capacity–A Testimonial by “Sheri from Justice Now on Vimeo.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at

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