Sen. Loni Hancock photo

Sen. Loni Hancock, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said today that she hoped a new law would “clarify” state policy on prison sterilizations, which are allowed only in cases of medical necessity and with high-level state approval.Screen shot from California Channel

Top state lawmakers pledged today to pursue legislation to prevent sterilization abuses in prisons.

Sen. Loni Hancock, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, made the announcement during a packed hearing at the State Capitol. It was called in response to an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting that found nearly 150 women were sterilized from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals.

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

Hancock, D-Oakland, said she hoped a new law would “clarify” state policy on prison sterilizations, which are allowed only in cases of medical necessity and with high-level state approval. Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, vice chairman of the committee, said such legislation also would send a clear signal that the state’s history of forced sterilizations from the early 1900s through the 1970s should never be repeated.

“When we first heard of this issue, we acted quickly and strongly because we all understand that this is about fairness and dignity. This is at the core of basic dignity and human rights,” Anderson said. “We need as a public safety (committee) to send a clear message to all Californians that we will not accept less.”

Neither legislator provided details of what the legislation might include or when it would be introduced. But both discussed possibly adopting federal standards that clearly ban inmates from receiving sterilizations.

Corrections officials who testified at the hearing said they already are working closely with prison advocates and with federal Receiver Clark Kelso’s office to ensure that sterilization won’t occur again without authorization.

Kelso assured legislators that his office took swift action to stop the unauthorized sterilizations in 2010, after it realized they were occurring. He also said he would instruct his staff to continue educating outside doctors who provide medical care on contract.

Courtney Hooks photo

“Verbal assurances that abuses have stopped are not sufficient to ensure sterilization abuses will not reoccur,” said Courtney Hooks (right), spokeswoman for Justice Now, a prisoner rights group.Screen shot from California Channel

Advocates expressed skepticism. Courtney Hooks, spokeswoman for Justice Now, in Oakland, said her group continues to receive reports from inmates about prison doctors suggesting sterilization to inmates.

Hooks asked lawmakers to consider tracking all prison sterilizations and requiring reports to the Medical Board of California about doctors who perform them. She also said statistics on individuals who were sterilized would improve future monitoring by allowing officials to track whether some groups or genders were disproportionally affected.

“Verbal assurances that abuses have stopped are not sufficient to ensure sterilization abuses will not reoccur. The receivership will not last forever,” Hooks told lawmakers. “There’s an urgent need to clarify the legal obligations of medical and correctional staff as well as to strengthen oversight requirements.”

Although tubal ligations have been restricted since 1994, Kelso maintains that prison staff may have believed they still were allowed.

In a July 23 letter to the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, Kelso wrote that staff recently discovered a 1999 memo titled “Revisions to Medical Standards for Inmates,” which directs that “Postpartum Tubal Ligations will be included” as part of pregnant inmate care.

Kelso said the memo, which went to all the prison medical officials at the time, conflicted with the existing ban on tubal ligation. So far, he said, his staff hasn’t found any documents explaining why it was sent out.

Clark Kelso photo

Federal Receiver Clark Kelso assured legislators at a hearing today that his office took swift action to stop unauthorized sterilizations in prisons in 2010, after it realized they were occurring.Screen shot from California Channel

“That’s why I determined not to discipline doctors and didn’t refer cases to the medical board,” Kelso said. “It seems to me that we had a real conflict in direction from headquarters.”

State corrections officials told lawmakers that the newly uncovered document didn’t appear to authorize overriding the restrictions on tubal ligations, but instead, provided guidance on billing.

Nora Wilson, attorney for Justice Now, called the new document “weird” and questioned the interpretation.

“I think they know they have been operating illegally and want cover,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she and other Justice Now representatives would be meeting with the federal receivership next week. The Joint Legislative Audit Committee also is scheduled to vote next Wednesday on a request for a State Auditor’s Office investigation of the prison sterilization matter.

 This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Pam Hogle and Christine Lee.

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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.