A bill aimed at preventing coerced sterilizations in California prisons passed its first legislative hurdle today.

By a 9-0 vote, members of the state Senate Health Committee unanimously approved SB 1135. The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, would ban the sterilization of inmates for birth control purposes, limiting the procedures to dire medical emergencies.

“Far too often, hysterectomies are the first procedure being used by doctors on women for medical problems that may have more effective and less dramatic treatments available,” Jackson said. “SB 1135 clarifies the law. This will hopefully prevent future abuses and make sure the ban on sterilization is clear to all.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Public Safety Committee for consideration.

The bill is the culmination of talks among lawmakers, prison rights advocates and correctional officials in the wake of a CIR investigation that found that 132 women received tubal ligations in violation of prison rules from 2006 to 2010 – and perhaps 100 more dating back to the late 1990s.

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

The federal receivership, which oversees health care in state prisons, testified in support of Jackson’s bill. So did members of Oakland-based prisoner rights group Justice Now, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the California Catholic Conference, Planned Parenthood, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.

Some lawmakers were visibly moved by the testimony of Kelli Dillon, a former inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility who maintains she was sterilized without her knowledge. Dillon burst into tears as she recounted the moment she discovered that a surgeon had permanently damaged her ovaries. It happened in 2001, Dillon said, during a routine biopsy exam and surgery to remove cysts.

“My life didn’t stop in prison. The quality of my life didn’t stop there,” Dillon said. “Yet, I feel like I’ve been robbed. This bill will protect women who have the ability to be rehabilitated.”

Shannon Smith-Crowley and Dr. Yen Truong of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told lawmakers that their group supported the bill’s objectives, but not its current version.

Truong said she wanted to make sure that inmates who wanted sterilizations continued to have access. She also worried that current language in the legislation would block some medically necessary sterilizations.

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Corey G. Johnson

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.