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Survivors Of Forced Sterilizations In California Fight A Century Of Violence In Women’s Prisons

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

California community organizers continue to fight for reparations after the state forcibly sterilized people for more than a century, offering little more than an empty apology and three rejected compensation bills. 

Since 2017, organizers have pushed for legislation to compensate survivors of forced sterilizations during the eugenics era, when states allowed the practice to be carried out against over 60,000 disabled and imprisoned people and later, in the 2000s, when hundreds of people in women’s prisons were illegally sterilized against their will.

Community organizer Kelli Dillon and attorney Cynthia Chandler have fought the abuse in California prisons for twenty years. In 2001, Dillon was sterilized without her knowledge or consent while imprisoned. She later reached out to Chandler for help getting access to her medical records. 

Their meeting unfolded into a political struggle, documented in Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast, after Dillon and Chandler uncovered a disturbing pattern within the California Department of Corrections (CDCR), which paid doctors to perform illegal tubal ligations on hundreds of Black and Latinx prisoners against their will, often without their knowledge. 

Lorena Garcia Zermeño is the Policy and Communications Coordinator for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice (CLRJ). She holds political education events across the state. 

“It’s happened more often than we would like, where we’re giving these presentations and more than one person comes forward and says, ‘oh my god, I think this happened to me with my doctor. I signed a consent form but it wasn’t the correct one, and then there was some kind of weird medical malpractice that happened.’ And then they realize they were sterilized,” Zermeño said.  

Aminah Elster was imprisoned during her “childbearing years.” As the Campaign and Policy Coordinator for California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), Elster organizes for reproductive justice and prison abolition. She sees these two causes as deeply connected. 

“All of the work around police violence, defunding the police, reparations [for forced and coerced sterilizations], the Prison-Industrial Complex, it’s all interwoven and intertwined,” Elster said.

Chandler, Zermeño, Elster, and their organizations fight for reparations for survivors. They have held political education events, circulated a petition that has garnered nearly 14,000 signatures, sponsored compensation bills, and more. 

Since 2017, they have pushed for legislation to compensate survivors of forced and coerced sterilizations between 1909 and 2013. 

The most recent iteration of the bill, AB 1007—co-sponsored by CLRJ and CCWP, as well as  Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF) and Back to the Basics—is currently making its way through committees in the California state assembly. In addition to survivor compensation, the bill would establish an outreach program in consultation with community-based organizations, whereby markers would be placed at designated sites, raising public awareness of California’s history of mass sterilization abuse. 

“Many people in this country are not aware that these heinous acts of reproductive injustice even occurred. A vital step is raising awareness that this happened and educating people about it,” Carly Myers, an attorney for DREDF said. 

The original 2017 bill included a mandate for education about eugenics in public schools, but legislators removed it. 

In fighting to preserve the memory of forced sterilizations in California, organizers are helping people better understand, and thereby combat, present reproductive injustice. Political education, organizers argue, is crucial to transforming the conditions that lead to this injustice. 

AB 1007 would also require that the state formally notify every individual it has coercively sterilized. 

“The state shouldn’t be able to hide the violence that it’s done to people’s bodies,” Chandler said. 

Organizers say compensation is a critical component of the push for reparations, to acknowledge this abuse that has been practiced in California for over a century, and to demonstrate an authentic commitment to preventing it in the future. 

“People need to be compensated for the harm that has been done to them. And also it sends a statement as well that this is not acceptable. This is not acceptable for medical professionals to be coming in here experimenting on individuals,” Elster said.

Myers is hopeful that, in passing AB 1007, California might set an example for other states. 

“We really need a material acknowledgment to set a strong precedent nationwide that we don’t stand for this behavior, and by making a meaningful gesture recognizing its wrongdoing, we’re making a true promise that it will never happen again,” Myers said.

Importantly, financial compensation is just one pillar of a reparations platform. Community Organizer Mariame Kaba describes reparations as a framework including repair, restoration, acknowledgment, cessation, and non repetition.

Writing about reparations after Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville police officer Myles Cosgrove, Kaba and co-writer Andrea J. Ritchie state, “Under a reparations framework, Breonna’s family—and all of us—are also entitled to more than an individualized response to what is a systemic problem.”

Organizers recognize that monetary compensation does not equate to justice. No amount of money can bring back a survivor’s reproductive capacity or transform the conditions that led to this reproductive abuse. 

“But it does go far beyond words,” Meyers said, “and it will more effectively acknowledge the wrongs done by the state.” 

The compensation bill has bipartisan support, but so far, no iteration has made it past the appropriations committee, where state legislators decide how and where to allocate funds. AB 1007 is currently suspended in that committee. It will be heard on May 20th. 

“Most people, in theory, want to be on the side of history that’s opposed to eugenics. But where they’ve been lacking in action is actually putting a dollar priority behind it,” Chandler said.

While many legislators have agreed that survivors of forced and coerced sterilizations deserve compensation, they continue to stop short of actually granting it. 

“I’ve heard legislators say, ‘if we were to do reparations for this, we have to do reparations for other things. Why should we start with this issue?’ Well, why not start with this issue? Why not start with an actual public mandate and resolve that says ‘we will not tolerate the annihilation of Black women’s families?’” Chandler said. 

“I think that until the state legislature agrees to compensate people for this abuse, they are complicit with the racism and sexism that was at the root of this abuse,” Chandler said. “Absent real accountability, I think we’re doomed for this to repeat over and over and over again.” 

Breaking Cycle Of State-Sanctioned Reproductive Violence

Throughout the 20th century, the United States waged a violent campaign against the reproductive rights of disabled and imprisoned people, the vast majority of whom were Black and/or Latinx. It was eugenics, and California was the national leader. 

Eugenicists advocated for forced sterilization to prevent people they deemed “unfit” from having children. California eugenicists justified mass sterilization by framing the procreation of these groups as harmful to the state. 

Forcibly stripping “unfit” people of their right to reproduce, they argued, was a convenient way to save state funds and prevent overcrowding in state institutions. 

California passed its first sterilization law in 1909, targeting primarily people in state hospitals, “mental institutions,” and prisons. Over the next eight years, the state legislature expanded its scope, increasing its capacity to sterilize people. By 1917, the state had empowered itself to sterilize virtually anyone it deemed “unfit to reproduce” for any reason.

Notably, the law did not afford patients control over their bodies. Under all iterations of the law, patient consent was not required for sterilization, patients had no legal rights to challenge sterilization orders, and state officials had no obligation to notify patients or their families that they had been sterilized. 

Eugenic sterilizations were a tool of white supremacy used against communities that eugenicists believed threatened “the strength and wellbeing of the race.” People who were sterilized were typically categorized by white supremacists in at least one of three ways: dependent, delinquent, or mentally deficient.  

People labeled “dependent” were usually poor, receiving welfare payments from the state. People considered “delinquent” were often sterilized as a “cure for sexual promiscuity,” or a treatment for “criminal” behavior. “Mentally deficient” was used as a catchall, referring to people with substance use disorders, depression, Down’s syndrome, and a wide range of other mental and physical disabilities. 

Across all three categories, people targeted for sterilization were disproportionately women and racial and ethnic minorities, specifically Black and/or Latinx.

“It’s these very particular notions of who is fit to parent that are at play here, and it’s very deeply rooted in white supremacy. And [that’s] what we have been continuously screaming at the top of our lungs for a very long time,” Zermeño said. 

California’s sterilization law went largely uncontested by state officials for 70 years. By 1921, the state accounted for over 80 percent of sterilizations in the U.S. In the 1930s, California’s aggressive sterilization law was used as a model for the Nazi regime’s “purification” efforts.   

By the time the law was repealed in 1979, the state had forcibly sterilized over 20,000 people.

“Throughout history, people with disabilities have been looked down upon and seen as not only unfit to reproduce, but unfit to exist. The eugenics era and the sterilizations that happened in this country were emblematic of those ideas,” Myers said.  “With the repeal of the eugenics law, those ideologies certainly didn’t disappear.” 

Losing Survivors To Time

Tens of thousands of survivors of eugenic sterilizations have died over the course of a century, and many living survivors of both past and contemporary sterilizations are at high-risk for COVID-19. The fact that so many haven’t had an opportunity for reparation lends a greater sense of urgency to pass legislation in support of those who are still alive. 

“Every year, that number of survivors that would be able to receive compensation and reparations is dwindling,” Zermeño said. “We really hope that this will be the year. But also, it has to be.” 

Of the over 20,000 disabled and imprisoned people forcibly sterilized in California during the eugenics era, there are an estimated 455 alive today. 

“If we don’t provide reparations this year, these 455 people, just like the [over] 19,500 people before them, will die without seeing any form of justice. That’s not okay,” Myers said. 

Recent uprisings in response to racism, calls to defund and abolish the police, and the COVID-19 pandemic all make the reparations bill even more timely. 

“The global pandemic has exposed disparities in healthcare treatment that not only disabled people, but also Black people, people of color, women, and poor people have experienced for decades. And this bill provides California an opportunity to be a leader in addressing these disparities and the violence that has occurred within carceral settings,” Myers said. 

When Kelli Dillon wrote to Cynthia Chandler in 2001, she was imprisoned at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), 24 years-old and experiencing symptoms of menopause. Dillon sought treatment from prison medical staff for cramps, and was told she needed an operation for cervical cancer—cancer she later found out she did not have. 

After the operation, she was denied access to her own medical records, so she enlisted Chandler’s help. The two finally met when Chandler obtained the records and discovered Dillon had been involuntarily sterilized. 

“I had to tell her in that first meeting that I had figured out that she had been sterilized without her knowledge,” Chandler said. 

Dillon’s sterilization happened over two decades after forced sterilizations were outlawed in California. 

When Dillon reached out to her, Chandler was running Justice Now, a Prison-Industrial Complex (PIC) abolitionist organization centering the experiences of people in women’s prisons. 

Critical Resistance defines the PIC as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.” Justice Now maintains that the PIC upholds patriarchy by perpetuating gender-based violence, specifically against women of color, who make up two-thirds of women in prison.  

“People in women’s prisons are so often the survivors of gross interpersonal violence that goes unacknowledged by our current criminal legal system,” Chandler said. 

Organizations like Justice Now oppose carceral feminism, which advocates for increasing the scope of prisons and policing as a solution to gender-based violence. “We wanted to be able to create a very gender-focused abolitionist organization that would challenge the idea that prisons and policing are a response to violence against women, and instead show that prisons and policing are a form of violence against women,” Chandler said. 

Some call it the abuse-to-prison pipeline, whereby survivors are criminalized and imprisoned for their responses to domestic, sexual, and gender-based violence. 

Nearly 79 percent of people in women’s prisons nationwide have experienced domestic or sexual abuse prior to their imprisonment. And 86 percent of women in prisons and jails report having experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. Still, the data on imprisoned survivors is sparse and in many cases outdated—an indictment in and of itself.

As many as 90 percent of women imprisoned for killing men have been abused by those men prior to killing them. Dillon herself is a survivor of domestic violence—she was coercively sterilized while imprisoned for killing her abuser in self-defense. 

“I Do Not Feel ‘Safer’ Here”

“Stop Forced Sterilization” Poster, circa 1977. Image via Library of Congress.

In prison, survivors are isolated from their communities and subjected to further violence. In Are Prisons Obsolete?, longtime prison abolitionist Angela Davis quotes prisoner Marcia Bunny, who said, “I do not feel ‘safer’ here because ‘the abuse has stopped.”

“It has not stopped,” Bunny said. “It has shifted shape and paced itself differently, but it is as insidious and pervasive in prison as ever it was in the world I know outside these walls.”

Sexual assault by staff occurs in carceral facilities across the U.S. It is particularly rampant in women’s prisons. 

In 2011, Amnesty International found that staff routinely sexually assault, harass, and extort people in women’s prisons with impunity. 

“Male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against [prisoners] who complain about sexual assault and harassment,” the report reads. “Guards threaten the prisoner’s children and

visitation rights as a means of silencing the women. Guards issue rules-infraction tickets, which extend the woman’s stay in prison if she speaks out. Prisoners who complain are frequently placed in administration segregation.”

According to data that the CDCR released in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act , 326 instances of prison staff sexual assaulting prisoners were reported in California in 2019. Between 2014 and 2018, the CDCR fired at least six prison guards for sexually assaulting people in women’s prisons. The vast majority of instances of sexual violence in prisons go unreported and unaddressed. 

Prisons also enact gender-based violence by obstructing prisoners’ right to family. 

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has the right to “found a family, without limitation due to race, nationality, or religion.” Prisons function to prevent people from accessing their right to family through systematic isolation, confinement during reproductive years, forced and coerced sterilization, and a lack of reproductive healthcare. 

The CDCR obstructed Dillon’s right to family both by sterilizing her without her consent while she was imprisoned, and by imprisoning her in the first place, separating her from her two children.

“Prison in itself is a eugenic tool,” Elster said. “I was arrested when I was 24. I got out of prison when I was 39. And [I’m] trying to start a family and learning I have my own reproductive issues.” 

“So in a sense, being in prison for so long—especially during my childbearing years—is a form of sterilization that I’m personally experiencing myself.” 

Building An “Underground Network”

Dillon contacted Chandler for help after hearing about Justice Now’s participatory human rights program, which involved training an “underground network” of hundreds of people confined in women’s prisons in international human rights law. 

Program participants documented abuses they witnessed and experienced in prison, including sexual violence and coerced sterilization. 

After discovering she was sterilized, Dillon began connecting with other people in women’s prisons who had the same experiences. She documented the abuses and collected testimonies for Justice Now, and the organization began petitioning for legislation to ban sterilizations for birth control purposes in prisons.

“Documenting and working to challenge forced and coerced sterilizations highlights, perhaps most clearly, how prisons are functioning as a form of neoslavery,” Chandler said.

Historically, systems of enslavement are partially maintained through natal alienation. Historian and Professor Tyree Boyd-Pates defines natal alienation as “the estrangement or disconnection from historical memory, which occurs by severing an individual from their kinship traditions, cultural heritage (including language and religion), and economic inheritance through experiences of social death.”  

“When you look at that abuse in women’s prisons—and frankly, when you look at the experience of people in women’s prisons in general—you see most clearly the destruction of kinship ties,” Chandler said. “Sterilization abuse is the ultimate manifestation of this destruction of family.”

Justice Now’s investigation found illegal forced and coerced sterilizations were widespread in California. Between 1997 and 2013, the CDCR forcibly and coercively sterilized nearly 1,400 people in women’s prisons. 

“The doctors were not hiding the fact that they were doing this. The Department of Corrections wasn’t hiding it. There was sort of a general unawareness that there would be any problem with it,” Chandler said.

In July 2013, Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) found that between 2006 and 2010, California paid doctors to perform illegal, forced or coerced bilateral-tubal ligations on at least 148 prisoners at California Institution for Women and Valley State Prison for Women. Documents and interviews showed there may have been as many as 100 more forced or coerced sterilizations in women’s prisons dating back to the 1990s. The vast majority of people sterilized were Black and/or Latinx. 

Between 1997 and 2010, the state paid doctors $147,460 to perform the illegal tubal ligations. Prisons were able to get the state to pay for the procedures by falsely reporting them “medically necessary.” 

Dr. James Heinrich, a now 77-year-old white male OB-GYN, performed several coerced sterilizations with state funds. He told CIR the $147, 460 “isn’t a huge amount of money, compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children.”

Heinrich’s words, uttered in 2013, sound eerily like that of eugenicists one hundred years prior. 

“There’s still this very eugenic belief that these women—that low income people, that disabled people, that people who are categorized as criminals—that their reproduction is harmful to the state,” Sterilization and Social Justice Lab researcher Natalie Lira said. 

Sterilizing Women In Prison Today

By the time CIR published its investigation, members of Justice Now had been trying to get legislators to pay attention to forced and coerced sterilizations in women’s prisons for years. Many lawmakers dismissed them. 

“I was treated as if I was walking into legislative offices and telling them that space aliens had landed,” Chandler said. 

It wasn’t until 2013, after years of action by Justice Now and the CIR article, that the state agreed to conduct an audit. 

 “The audit hearings […] were looking at the illegal use of state funds on illegal surgeries. They were not looking at the abuse of Black and Latina women. They were looking at inappropriate fiscal allocations. That’s how we were able to get the state legislature’s ire up,” Chandler said.  

The audit, published in June 2014, found that 144 people in women’s prisons were illegally sterilized via bilateral-tubal ligation in the seven years leading up to 2013—a procedure “generally performed for the sole purpose of sterilization.” It also found that prison staff  “infrequently” obtained proper approval to sterilize prisoners and, in many instances, failed to obtain lawful consent for these procedures. 

In September 2014, after years of campaigning, the California Senate passed SB 1135 outlawing sterilizations for the purpose of birth control in prisons. The bill also mandated that state prisons annually submit public data on every sterilization procedure performed on prisoners. 

The data indicates that ten tubal ligations—surgeries that, as the 2014 audit stated, are typically performed for the sole purpose of preventing pregnancy—were performed in California women’s prisons between 2015 and 2019. 

Five of the prisoners sterilized via tubal ligation during these years were Latinx, four were Black, and one was white American. Of the ten tubal ligations, seven were reported “medically necessary,” just like the sterilizations of the 1920s. One was reportedly performed for the “immediate preservation of life in an emergency situation.” 

According to the report, only two of the ten patients sterilized via tubal ligation during those years requested the procedure of their own volition. The data also indicates that between 2015 and 2017, at least two sterilizations were performed without the necessary approval and/or knowledge of the appropriate CDCR health services centers. 

“There are still instances of sterilization that look to be, on their face, in violation of law, both federal and state,” Chandler said. “I believe that the numbers of coerced sterilizations have shrunk since we did that bill, but I do not believe that they have ended.”

Outlawing Forced Sterilization Is Not Enough

While the 2014 bill was a step toward ending forced and coerced sterilization in prisons, there’s still much work to be done to end these abuses in earnest. Rather than just lobbying the state, Chandler said the community must continue to mobilize. 

“The Sunshine Statue that we were able to pass to stop coercive sterilization is now being used to deny access to reproductive care and justify denial of care for people inside prison,” Chandler said. 

“Reform efforts in the absence of grassroots mobilization typically end up kicking people in the butt in ways that you can’t really predict,” she added. “So if all we were doing was trying to do just that bill, I don’t think that we could even call that a success in the end, in terms of how we reduce suffering in the world.” 

The CDCR’s healthcare system is infamous for its brutality, including systematically sterilizing Black and Latinx people, allowing for the preventable deaths of multiple prisoners, and refusing to release medically vulnerable people as COVID-19 ravages its prisons. 

In 2002, after years of preventable prisoner deaths, the CDCR healthcare system was found to violate the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment. A California court of appeals ordered the CDCR to release tens of thousands of prisoners and provide adequate healthcare. 

The CDCR failed to comply with the court order, and its healthcare system was put under a federal receivership, wherein a “receiver” oversees its operations, reporting to a federal court. 

Hundreds of coerced sterilizations have been performed under the supervision of federal receivers. 

The CDCR routinely treats prisoners’ lives, health, and bodies as expendable. The carceral system is dehumanizes prisoners by design, deeming them unworthy of protection or bodily autonomy. 

The state controls whether, how, and for what prisoners are allowed to seek medical care; when and how they’re able to practice hygiene; and when, how, and with what they’re able to nourish their bodies, among other things—including one’s ability to reproduce. 

It follows that forced and coerced sterilizations were allowed to occur in women’s prisons long after they were outlawed. 

“We’re talking about people that are really confined and imprisoned and have no autonomy over their own bodies,” Elster said. “We’re talking about really disadvantaged people that are easily taken advantage of and, for the most part, larger society has cast away as rejects. They don’t even see them as human.”

Napa State Hospital, Demolished In 1949. Public domain image.

“Who Gets To Decide?”

Lira has studied eugenic sterilizations in California for several years. 

“For me, history is really about, yes, drawing parallels between then and now, but also figuring out how to learn from that moment,” she told Shadowproof. 

“Eugenicists were progressives as well. They were about using the government in ways to ‘benefit’ society. But really, we need to understand: what is our vision of a ‘better’ society? Who gets to decide that? Who is included in that and who is excluded?”

Ironically, California’s “progressivism” has motivated reform ideologies and practices that deeply entrench structural oppression. 

In 1917, California established Pacific Colony, an institution for “feeble-minded” individuals. A Board of Trustees was empowered to grant permission to sterilize people there. The mean age of people confined at Pacific Colony was 18. 

“Mental institutions” like Pacific Colony have a long history of collaboration with the carceral system. Much like the “delinquent” label, the state used “feeble-minded” as a way to identify people for exclusion from society and confinement in institutions. 

The juvenile court system played a significant role in determining who would be confined at Pacific Colony. 

“Part of the argument around establishing Pacific Colony was very much about wanting to humanize the juvenile court system—that young people don’t need to be in prisons, but they do need to be confined. But if we create this new institution, then it will be more humane,” Lira said. 

“But actually, it was about punishment. It was about control and punishment.”

Today, Lira worries that the state is repeating its pattern of finding “more humane” ways to control and punish marginalized people. In the wake of calls to defund the police, Lira warns of a progressive push to allocate more funds and power to health professionals. 

“That sounds a lot more humane and less violent, but if we look at this history of eugenics and this history of institutionalization, it was social workers and mental health professionals that were doing these things, too. And so we have to be really careful,” Lira said.

In 2003, California Governor Gray Davis publicly apologized for forced sterilizations after four other states issued apologies for their roles in the eugenics movement.

 “To the victims and their families of this past injustice, the people of California are deeply sorry for the suffering you endured over the years. Our hearts are heavy for the pain caused by eugenics. It was a sad and regrettable chapter […] that must never be repeated,” he said. 

Davis made no mention of compensating survivors in this apology or the remainder of his term as Governor. And his decision to frame eugenics as a “past injustice” obfuscates the reality that sterilization abuse is a contemporary issue. 

At the time of Davis’ apology, there were likely over 1,000 living survivors who had received neither compensation nor support for the abuses the state inflicted upon them. 

“Apology is not enough. Apology is just words and writing,” Elster said.

Above all, organizers stress the need for systemic change in order to truly end and further prevent sterilization abuse in all settings. 

To many organizers, this ideological shift requires abolishing the systems that have made mass sterilization abuse possible in the first place. This means eliminating the PIC, including its manifestations in healthcare settings, like the institutions where tens of thousands of eugenics sterilizations took place in the 1900s. 

The central issue for organizers is not just that California has yet to grant reparations for forced sterilizations, or even that they continued in women’s prisons long after they were outlawed. It’s the PIC itself. 

“Whenever you put people in conditions of confinement and into carceral institutions, they lose power over their bodies. And that’s how we get these really unjust histories of reproductive oppression,” Lira said.  

Forcibly sterilizing people is a logical extension of confining people and denying their human rights as punishment for violating the laws of the state. As Chandler notes, “Imprisonment itself is the vector of human rights abuse. It’s doing its job when it is, in fact, sterilizing people.”

Lira says prisons should not exist. “I think that’s the biggest factor. Any prison, jail, setting of confinement, is open to abuse. Period. So I think until we get rid of that, it’s going to be really hard to prevent [mass sterilization abuse] from happening again.”

“I think [this will continue] until we start really saying, […] ‘Even if you broke the law, you shouldn’t be incarcerated. You shouldn’t be separated from your family,’” she said.  

The way forward then, is dismantling the systems that allow for reproductive oppression and creating new ones, that affirm everyone’s humanity. 

“We should really be upholding bodily autonomy, self-determination, and making sure that there are systems in place that support our communities, and that we’re making sure that everyone has the resources and the support they need to thrive and to be able to live with dignity,” Zermeño said. 

Or, as  Elster put it, “Incarceration is a tool of reproductive suppression. And the only way around that is abolition.” 

Citlali Pizarro

Citlali Pizarro

Born and raised in California, Citlali Pizarro is a freelance journalist who covers community organizing against state violence. She graduated from Swarthmore College in 2020.