Over four months ago, a group of senators sent a letter to the United States Department of Justice raising concerns about the reported “humanitarian crisis” continuously unfolding in jails in New York City, Miami, and Los Angeles.
When the senators’ offices confirmed two weeks ago that they had never received a response, the DOJ finally acknowledged the letter but stated only that they “are aware of the request from the Senators, but do not have any comment at this time.” The Los Angeles Times did not receive a response from the LA County Sheriff’s Department to a request for comment.
The letter, obtained by the Times, cited reports of countless horrors apparently commonplace in LA lockups: prisoners routinely being denied bedding and clean water, chained to chairs for days at a time, and having bathroom access withheld, resulting in them living in piles of excrement; diabetics being denied their insulin, and schizophrenics their medication; and other accounts that call to mind the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
One prison guard, Gregory Rodriguez, based in California’s largest female-only prison has recently been accused of rape and other sexual abuse by at least 22 female inmates and has received little but some support from prison administration, who appears to be in a well-established habit of covering for rapists among prison personnel.
On state Gov. Gavin Newsom’s part, he has done virtually nothing constructive to change the situation and, when given the opportunity, has done the opposite. When a bill crossed his desk in late 2022 to limit solitary-confinement practices that many experts are likening to torture, he vetoed it and allowed the practices to continue.
The women were consistently misled and forced into medically unnecessary sterilizations.
None of this should come as a surprise given the history of California officials facilitating human rights abuses in their prisons and then ducking all responsibility. One example of this, worth brushing up on in light of the DOJ’s and sheriff’s department’s apparent comfort in ignoring calls for accountability, is the history of eugenics in California, a practice that continued into at least the year 2010.
California’s eugenics program began in 1909. Before its official 1979 end, state officials forcibly sterilized more than 20,000 people who were deemed unintelligent, sexually deviant, or otherwise unfit to reproduce. This, the largest eugenics program in the United States, “inspired similar practices in Nazi Germany.”
The states’ right to sterilize unwilling victims was enshrined by the United States Supreme Court in 1927, when Virginia’s right to sterilize the supposedly “feeble minded” Carrie Buck was upheld in Buck v. Bell.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the majority, asserted that “[t]hree generations of imbeciles are enough.” He claimed:
It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.
For decades, it was widely assumed that California’s eugenics practices had permanently shut down in the 1970s — when the official program was repealed — but those assumptions later turned out to be false.
The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered in 2013 that at least 148 women had been given tubal ligations between 2006 and 2010, often “coerced” into the procedures. Others were completely unaware that the surgery was performed, only discovering their infertility in subsequent doctor visits — or not at all. According to the many personal accounts that sparked the initial investigations, the women were consistently misled and forced into medically unnecessary sterilizations.
Those discovered by the center were just the latest examples of a series of forced sterilizations that happened in California prisons beginning in the late 1990s. As NPR has noted, the total number of victims is probably much higher. Many of the records of these medical procedures have since been “lost or destroyed,” according to the Associated Press.
The center’s claims were initially denied by state officials. NPR reports that former Valley State Prison OB-GYN James Heinrich insisted the sterilizations were consensual, even stating, “Over a 10-year period, [the $147,460 cost of operations] isn’t a huge amount of money … compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children — as they procreated more.” The doctor apparently echoed Holmes’ justification of eugenics.
But California state auditors looked into the center’s claims and published a report in June 2014 confirming that the misconduct had occurred with the oversight of either California Correctional Health Care Services or the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “This report concludes that during our eight-year audit period, 144 female inmates were sterilized by a procedure known as bilateral tubal ligation, a surgery generally performed for the sole purpose of sterilization,” the auditors wrote. “State regulations impose informed consent requirements that must be met before a woman can be sterilized; however, Corrections and the Receiver’s Office sometimes failed to ensure that inmates’ consent for sterilization was lawfully obtained.”
California responded by outlawing future involuntary prison sterilizations, but, as the Guardian reports, “While the bill passed unanimously, its carefully negotiated language allowed the state to escape further responsibility.”
In 2021, legislation was passed to allot reparations of $15,000 in tax funding to each applicant capable of proving herself one of the sterilization victims — a task almost impossible, given the abovementioned loss or destruction of medical records; the fact that an unknown number of women were sterilized without their knowledge; and the unlikelihood of most victims even learning of the reparations program before its deadline later this year, after which their chance of earning reparations will have ended.
Of California’s estimated 600 eugenics victims still living, only 51 reparations applicants have been approved. If California officials are so immune to retribution for their crimes, ducking responsibility and passing the costs onto taxpayers instead of suffering any consequences themselves, what chance do the victims of today’s prison abuses have? Those currently suffering in Los Angeles County jails will need a reckoning if the abuses are ever to stop.
Saul Zimet is the Website and Data Coordinator for HumanProgress.org at the Cato Institute. Follow him on Twitter @SaulZimet and find his other work at www.knowledgemaximalism.com.
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