War on the Womb: California Female Inmates Coerced into Sterilization, History Repeats Itself

Eugenics Scandal in California

The Issue

Approximately 250 known cases of illegal tubal ligations, 150 confirmed, occured in California Institution for Women in Corona, and Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, between 2006-2010. The  investigation was launched in 2010 after Justice Now, a prisoner’s rights group issued a public records request in 2010, and then sent a complaint to Sen. Carol Liu D-Glendale, who was also the chairwoman of the Select Committee on Women and Children. The sterilizations were targeted towards women that were at the highest risk to re-offend and return to prison.

The evidence and testimony of the key players damages the credibility and the ethics of the California prison staff and representatives. The evidence describes under cover eugenics decision-making, bringing a war on the womb of California female inmates, by coercing them into sterilization. History once again repeats itself. 

The War on the Womb

The question needs to be asked as to whether this rate of recidivism and fertility rate, was the only means of determining who was best suited for sterilization. What was the racial makeup of the 200 plus women who underwent the permanent procedure?  The question needs to be asked, because the media has already been quick to attach black face dressing on the story, but whether that portrayal is entirely accurate, and whether African American women were predominately chosen as a part of some twisted racial cleansing stands to be resolved. During the period of the sterilizations,  incarceration rates for African American women during that time, were decreasing, and White and Hispanic women were steadily increasing their prison rates. 

War on the Womb
Decline in African American Female Incarceration between 2000-2009

According to the Sentencing Project, a study written by Marc Mauer in 2013, ” fewer black women [are] in prison, but growing numbers of white women [are being] incarcerated” was part of the trend that included California state prisons in the study. The report loosely theorized that the war on drugs, that had initially hit the African American community the hardest, had now changed significantly where Meth amphetamines creating a larger user base amongst White women, and the result being that white women were now more likely to be involved in drug related crimes.

“the incarceration rates for both black men and women declined, while rising for both white men and women. Hispanic men’s rates declined modestly, while Hispanic women’s rates rose substantially.

Changes during the decade were most pronounced among women, with black women experiencing a decline of 30.7% in their rate of incarceration, white women a 47.1% rise, and Hispanic women a 23.3% rise.


Former Valley State Prison for Women inmate Kimberly Jeffrey
Noah Berger/For The Center for Investigative Reporting


Kimberly Jeffrey was incarcerated in Valley State Prison for Women while the sterlizations were occuring, and said that she too was approached “while she was sedated and strapped to a surgical table for a C-section” to be sterilized. Dorothy Roberts, author of Killing the Black Body, University of Pennsylvania Law Professor and expert on sterilization, said “courts have concluded that soliciting approval for sterilization during labor is coercive because pain and discomfort can impair a woman’s ability to weigh the decision.”

Kimberly Jeffrey stood her ground, and refused the procedure. Documents obtained by Center for Investigative Reporting show that Jeffrey was approached twice within 30 days, to have a tubal ligation. The first time in the office of Heinrich and the second attempt during a prenatal checkup at Madera Community Hospital.

The Key Players 

U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled in 2005 “that the system’s health care violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment” and that all such procedures were no longer funded at the federal level, and needed to be approved on a case-by-case basis.

Dr. Ricki Barnett worked for the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corporation, and it was his duty to track the services and costs, of medical procedures. Barnette also led the committee responsible for the approval of sterilizations, and stated that no such applications or requests were forwarded to his office, or his attention.

Justice Now is a prisoner’s advocacy group, received the letter shown below from Chief Operating Officer of the California Prison Health Care Receivership Corp,  Tim Rougeux in 2008, admitting to having knowledge of two different prisons offering the procedure.

Ironically, Jeffrey Callison who hold the position of spokesperson for California Corrections Department, was unable to speak on the matter, and excused himself by saying he had no access to the medical files.

Crystal Nguyen is a former inmate who also worked in the infirmary at the time of the procedures and overheard the conversations between doctor’s and patients. Crystal Nguyen often heard the medical staff ask repeat offenders to agree to be sterilized. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” Nguyen recalls.


Crystal Nguyen Credit: / Noah Berger For the Center for Investigative Reporting
Crystal Nguyen /Credit:  Noah Berger For the Center for Investigative ReportingThe California Female Inmates Coerced into Sterilization


At the center of the eugenics cover-up is Dr. James Heinrich, the institutions OB GYN, and Duan Martin Valley State Prison medical manager, and clinical psychologist. Duan Martin admits knowing the legal rights of the inmates, and chose to look for ways to circumvent them. When asked about her role in the controversy, she claimed that she was aware “but felt it was unfair”… so her and Heinrich looked for ways around it. Apparently, In one case, Heinrich asked her how to document a case, that related to an inmate who had 6 children. He was advised by Martin to mark it as a “medical emergency”.

Dr. Heinrich says he provided the service to “poor women who faced health risks because of past multiple C-sections”, and that multiple C sections endangered the inmates well being during future pregnancies. Specialists in the area of obstetrics argue that there is no sound basis for doing this. Dr. Carolyn Sufrin at San Francisco General Hospital, went on the record saying “multiple C section increases complication risk, but it is more appropriate to offer reversible means of birth control.

War on the Womb, California Female Inmate Coerced Into Sterilization
War on the Womb, California Female Inmate Coerced Into Sterilization

History Repeats Itself

California has a history of eugenics where marginalized women were sterilized to stop the spread of their genetic material. Between 1909-196 over 20,000 men and women were sterilized, and the state was so proficient at it, that Nazi Germany sought out their medical leaders on the subject.

Eugenics is a scientific theory that grew in popularity during the 1920s. It’s mandate was furthered through Planned Parenthood programs across America and through sterilization programs in thirty-two states. Eugenicists believe that poverty, promiscuity and alcoholism are inherited traits, and that by eliminating those undesirable genes from the population, society will be natural elevated past those problems.



follow me on twitter Tonnya Marisse


Center For Investigative Reporting –Kimberly Jeffrey’s Madera Community Hospital record  

Center for Investigative Reporting – Receivership Confirms Prison Sterilizations in 2008

Center For Investigative Reporting – Female inmates sterilized in California prisons without approval

CNN – CNN Reports Eugenics in California: Forced Sterilization

Sentencing Project, Mauer, Mark – The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration

MSN – Nearly 150 female inmates sterilized in Calif. without approval

Sacramento Bee – Female Inmates In California Prisons Without Approval 

Salon – Report finds female inmates were sterilized in California prisons without approval