California prison officials have a real medical ethics issue on their hands. From the late 1990s to at least 2010 more than 150 female prisoners were sterilized without their consent. The operations took place outside of the prison with private hospitals and doctors and the state paid an estimated $147,460. The targeted women were already pregnant or deemed to be at risk for repeat incarceration after release.
One prisoner, Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate claims she heard medical staff at the prison talking about the procedures. She is quoted as saying “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right. Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?’” In addition, another prisoner, Christina Cordero, age 34, stated that she was coerced by Dr. James Heinrich, the prison OB-GYN, to get a tubal ligation. “As soon as he found out that I had five kids, he suggested that I look into getting it done. The closer I got to my due date, the more he talked about it. He made me feel like a bad mother if I didn’t do it.”
In response, Dr. Heinrich denied pressuring anyone and stated that that the $147,460 spent on the sterilization was a small cost compared to the social cost. He is quoted as saying, “Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.”
In California the practice of forced sterilization for female prisoners and the mentally ill was banned in 1979. These new revelations of the continued practice have reached the level of federal investigation for civil rights violations. The question is now whether these surgeries violated the constitutional law of “cruel and unusual punishment.” In 2006 U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled that the prisons system of health care violated the constitutional ban.