Lawmakers in California have called for an internal audit after an investigation revealed that women were receiving sterilization procedures improperly at several state prisons, including the Valley State Prison for Women, pictured here in 2000.
Image: Gary Kazanjian/AP

Sitting in her San Francisco living room, Kimberly Jeffrey is combing her son Noel’s hair. He groans, but she meets his energy with calm — and adoration.

Noel’s birth was not an easy time. While Jeffrey was pregnant, she served a six-month sentence for petty theft at a state prison. When it came time to deliver Noel through a caesarean-section, Jeffrey was also confronted with the prospect of sterilization.

“As I was laying on the operating table, moments before I went into surgery, [medical staff] had made a statement,” Jeffrey recalls. “I’m not even quite sure if he was actually talking to me or if he was just making a general statement to all the medical staff — that, ‘OK, we’re going to do this tubal ligation.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want any procedures done outside of the C-section.’ ”

Jeffrey refused the tubal ligation, but a recent investigation from the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that scores of female inmates underwent the procedure, which is supposed to be prohibited for California prisoners, between 2006 and 2010.

When some of these sterilizations came to light this summer, lawmakers demanded answers from prison health care officials. In response, prison officials released documents that revealed hundreds of female inmates have been sterilized since 1997. They also produced a 1999 memo directing tubal ligation in post-partum care.

Clark Kelso, the federal receiver for prison health care in California, spoke to lawmakers at a recent hearing about the memo’s directive. “We don’t know why — it’s very long ago,” Kelso said. “We don’t know why that particular decision was reached … but that was what doctors in the field were told.”

After a federal court ruled human rights abuses were taking place under California state leadership, it appointed the federal receiver to take control of the state’s prison health care. But the sterilizations continued.

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