Audit: California Women’s Prisons an Illegally Sterile Environment

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Dozens of female inmates in California were illegally sterilized, and the number of women forced to undergo sterilizations without obtaining lawful consent may be higher, according to a report released by the state auditor last week.

According to the audit, 39 of the 144 tubal ligations performed on female inmates in California between 2005 and 2013 were done without lawful consent, according to the report produced by state auditor Elaine Howle.

“The state entities responsible for providing medical care to these inmates…sometimes failed to ensure that inmates’ consent for sterilization was lawfully obtained,” Howle wrote.

Though the audit found 39 cases in which sterilization was done without first securing the appropriate lawful consent, Howle noted that the actual number may be higher because some facilities destroyed records pursuant to retention policies while others could not furnish the appropriate records when requested.

The audit involved four facilities in California that housed female inmates: The California Institution for Women in Chino, the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Folsom Women’s Facility at Folsom State Prison and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla. Valley State Prison no longer houses female inmates.

Prison advocates had suggested that women who were targeted for sterilization were singled out based on their likelihood of being repeat offenders, but the audit found that most of the women who had undergone  tubal ligations were incarcerated for the first time. The audit further noted that the women who were targeted for sterilization were between the ages of 26 and 40, primarily spoke English and had been pregnant at least five times resulting in at least three live births.

The audit was requested by two California assemblywomen following a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting that found more than 250 female inmates had been forced to undergo sterilization procedures since the mid-1990s. Last week, State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson said the audit found that the problem was “far more systemic” that originally believed.

“We now have clear proof that the prison environment is an environment where consent simply cannot be obtained in a responsible, reliable manner for these procedures,” Jackson said in a statement.

According to CIR, prison staff had been looking for ways to get around a state restriction that limited the use of medical sterilization. A spokeswoman for the federal prison system in California told CIR it disagreed with the findings of the audit, but would implement recommendations — including new training measures — anyway.

The audit recommends, among other things, that prison medical staff receive additional training in how to obtain lawful consent from inmates before they are sterilized, as well as additional education on applicable patient forms and mandatory waiting periods. The audit also recommends that inmates subjected to sterilization grant consent at hospital instead of a prison to ensure proper consent is obtained.

The report also prompted lawmakers to introduce new legislation that would ban inmate sterilization as a form of birth control. According to the bill, sterilizations would be limited to life-threatening emergencies and to cure physical ailments.

The bill, SB 1135, was approved by the state senate last month and is now before the assembly.

Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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