The state Senate unanimously passed a bill that would prevent sterilization abuse among female inmates in California.

Credit: Chavala Madlena

Legislation aimed at preventing surgical sterilization abuses in California jails and prisons received broad support from the state Legislature this week and now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office for approval.

The bill, passed unanimously today by the state Senate, would ban sterilizations for birth control purposes in all state prisons, county jails and other detention centers. Surgeries would be restricted to treating life-threatening medical emergencies and addressing physical ailments.

Women would receive extensive counseling, and correctional facilities performing such surgeries would be required to post data about the procedures online. The bill also protects whistleblowers from retaliation for reporting violations.

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, pushed for the bill after The Center of Investigative Reporting found more than 130 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules from 2006 to 2010. Former inmates and prisoner advocates told CIR that prison medical staff pressured women, targeting inmates deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

“It’s clear that we need to do more to make sure that forced or coerced sterilizations never again occur in our jails and prisons,” Jackson said. “Pressuring a vulnerable population into making permanent reproductive choices without informed consent violates our most basic human rights.”

Misty Rojo of Justice Now said the organization was pleased with news. The prisoners rights group based in Oakland, California, worked closely with Jackson’s office on the bill. For years, the organization has sought redress for sterilization abuses, collecting records and inmate accounts about questionable and improper surgeries.

“This is a victory for people inside the prison. It feels good to be able to go back inside and say we finally won,” Rojo said. “But I’m going to keep my fingers crossed. I’m not breathing until the governor signs.”

In June, a California auditor review blasted state and federal oversight, finding numerous illegal sterilization surgeries and violations of the state’s informed consent law.

Of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates from 2006 to 2013, auditors found, more than a quarter were done without lawful consent. Fifty white women, 53 Latino women, 35 black women and six women classified as “other” received the procedure. All women had been jailed at least once. Most tested at less than a high school level of reading proficiency.

The federal prison receivership has overseen medical care in all 33 of the state’s prisons since 2006, when U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of the Northern District of California ruled that the system’s health care was so poor that it violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The state auditor called for federal officials to forward the names of physicians involved to the medical board and the state Department of Public Health for further investigation and disciplinary action. That would include 39 cases, 17 doctors and eight hospitals. Officials at the federal receivership have said they will follow auditor recommendations.

Earlier this week, the state Assembly also approved the measure unanimously, 77-0. Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill. 

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Corey G. Johnson is a reporter on the government oversight team at The Center for Investigative Reporting. A native of Atlanta, Corey has exposed secrecy, mismanagement, corruption and abuse of power inside governmental, educational and police organizations. He was the lead reporter on CIR's On Shaky Ground series, which uncovered systemic weaknesses in earthquake protections at California public schools. That work was a finalist for a 2012 Pulitzer Prize and won the IRE Medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Scripps Howard Award for public service reporting and the Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. Before joining CIR, Corey covered higher education at The Fayetteville Observer in North Carolina. He is a graduate of Florida A&M University.