Last month, reproductive justice advocates and prisoner rights organizers won an important victory when California governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1135 into law. The new law, which takes effect on January 1, 2015, will ban sterilization as a form of birth control in the state’s women’s prisons. In the case of a life-threatening situation, the law requires a second medical opinion (a procedure that is pretty much unheard-of in prison health care) and counseling on the effects of the procedure, including the fact that sterilization is permanent.
It seems preposterous that California (or any state) needs a law making it illegal to coerce people in women’s prisons into sterilization. But recent history shows that California does need such a law: between 2006 and 2012, nearly 500 people in two of California’s women’s prisons were sterilized. Approximately 100 women had been pressured into agreeing to tubal ligations between 2006 and 2010. Although the law states that every in-prison tubal ligation must be approved by the State Medical Board, none of these surgeries were put before the board. In addition, another 378 women had been given hysterectomies, had their ovaries removed or underwent endometrial ablation (which destroys the uterus’ lining). Some had been given false information about their medical conditions — being told that they had fibroids, for instance — and that the only cure was to undergo a hysterectomy. In several cases, the woman did not have fibroids and the procedure proved to be medically unnecessary.
But SB 1135 didn’t come about by itself. It began in 2004 when advocacy group Justice Now began receiving letters from women in prison about their medical care. Through these letters, the group learned that hysterectomies and tubal ligations were happening frequently; some had even happened without the person’s consent or knowledge. The group began to try to find out more about what was happening inside — no easy task since not only are prisons not obliged to disclose information but, under privacy laws, are not allowed to talk about individual people’s medical issues. So Justice Now reached out to people incarcerated in these prisons directly.
In 2006, after a federal judge appointed a federal receiver to oversee California’s prison health care system, Justice Now asked the receiver’s office about prenatal care practices. Among their questions was whether tubal ligations were performed in prison. Two years later, they received their answer: more than 100 had occurred within a four-year time span.