by Misty Rojo
Sacramento – On Sept. 25, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1135, the prison anti-sterilization bill authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and bi-partisan co-authors and sponsored by legal and human rights organization Justice Now. The bill proceeded to the governor’s desk after passing with unanimous floor votes out of both the Senate and Assembly, with support from organizations like ACLU Northern California and Black Women for Wellness.
Supporters of the bill along with those directly impacted by sterilization say not only is it long overdue, but it makes sense after so much evidence was presented outlining the abuses. “This bill not only affects those still inside prisons and the thousands of women who will go through prisons and jails in the near future, but most importantly it protects generations of children to come who otherwise might not have had an opportunity to exist,” says Kelli Dillon, who was sterilized in her early 20s while incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
However, says Kelli, “We still need an apology and acknowledgement of what was done to us.” While this bill comes a long way in addressing the abusive and coercive conditions under which sterilizations occurred, it is a reminder that work still needs to be done to properly address those who had their ability to have children so callously and egregiously taken away.
The discovery that upwards of 100 illegal sterilizations of pregnant people imprisoned at Valley State Prison for Women and California Institution for Women between 2006 and 2010 spurred lawmakers into action. A report by the Center for Investigative Reporting released last year revealed that at least 250 such sterilizations may have occurred since the late 1990s – a story based on years of research, documentation and advocacy by Justice Now in collaboration with people in California women’s prisons.
A state audit released in May of this year confirmed that the tubal ligations performed between 2006 and 2010 in some cases were done illegally, not meeting legal requirements for informed consent, and that prison is such a coercive environment that the ability to give consent could not be established. Therefore, tubal ligations should not be performed.
“When you go to bed 18 years later still crying over the memory of being seven to eight months pregnant, legs shackled, after prancing past the free world people waiting for their appointments, and you’re alone – ‘property of’ stamped on you asking for tubal ligation – and handed a paper to sign with no conversation explaining the decision. To then go back to a solitary confinement cell alone where you have nothing but a plastic chair to alleviate your back pain.
“Is that consent? Is that voluntary? Is that informed? Does removing the leg shackles remove the isolation and fear?” asks Misty Rojo, campaign and communications director at Justice Now, who experienced signing a consent form nearly 18 years ago in a Tulare County Jail.
“This bill not only affects those still inside prisons and the thousands of women who will go through prisons and jails in the near future, but most importantly it protects generations of children to come who otherwise might not have had an opportunity to exist,” says Kelli Dillon, who was sterilized in her early 20s while incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
California’s past includes performing an estimated third of sterilizations nationwide during the American Eugenics Movement and advising Nazi eugenic programs. In 2003, Gov. Grey Davis issued a formal apology for California’s part in sterilizing approximately 20,000 mentally disabled people and other vulnerable populations from 1909 through the 1960s.
California prisons are one front in the struggle to end the state’s horrifying legacy of eugenics. Advocates hope this bill will be a major move towards protecting others from the brutality suffered by those who have been targeted for sterilization abuse. This bill sends a clear message that all people should have the right to full self-determination over their bodies and family making – free from violence, coercive environments or threat of force.
This is a moment of great historical significance. The California Legislature has spoken against sterilization abuse – especially Sen. Jackson, who championed this bill tirelessly to ensure it would offer as much protection as possible to women still locked in prisons and jails across the state. Now Gov. Jerry Brown has agreed with the legislator and helped reverse some of California’s living legacy of eugenics by signing SB 1135.
Misty Rojo is campaign and communications director for Justice Now, 1322 Webster St., Suite 210, Oakland CA 94612, 510-839-7654, ext. 4, www.jnow.org.