The Dirty Business of Prison Sterilization

Prison Bars

“In July of 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting published findings that 132 women in state prisons received tubal ligations between 2006 and 2010 – the majority of which were carried out by Dr. James Heinrich and done without proper state oversight.” – Al Jazeera America, April 2, 2014 (Read the Article)

When I read this article, it made me sick.  Just the premise alone of people in prisons being subjected to any coercive actions surrounding their medical care and bodies seems like some kind of bizarre reflection back to the history of eugenics and even the Nazi death camps.  During this time of Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), it is impossible not to be reminded of the horrific experiments that were performed on innocent people under the direction of Heinrich Himmler.  Certainly, the Holocaust was an unparalleled crime against faith and nature carried out on an innocent people; there is no real comparison.  But one would hope that it was a worldwide lesson that no living being should be the medical plaything of any body of authority…ever.  How could this happen in California?

California sits at the forefront of a great deal of the legislative change that is happening in the United States.  Immigration reform, Marriage Equality, boys and men of color, racial demographic changes, water rights, environmental concerns…all of these issues are central in the conversations around legislation in the state and these conversations are leading the national dialogue on the same.  The rights of people who have been through or who are currently in our corrective justice system are also part of the dialogue, but when the conversation turns to prisoner sexuality and body agency, a very real inner conflict emerges for many Americans.  What is the “value” of a body when we weigh punishment in a culture entirely built around capitalism.  Hardliners ask why should hard working, law abiding people care about prisoners let alone their sexual health? While ultra liberals are portrayed sometimes as wanting to create prison environments that would rival any country club or spa or special care facility, offering programs and care that would be inaccessible outside of detention.  But the question of forced or even coerced sterilizations, a life altering medical procedure that renders someone incapable of producing children, on people who are incarcerated takes the conversation into a whole new uncharted territory.

This particular case about sterilization begins with the questions immediately surrounding a group of women but, it is just as important to consider how men are reflected here as well.  The women involved have been violated in the most egregious manner if they were not in complete comprehension or agreement with what was being done to them, yet the rationale for the policy is guided by some damning assumptions about men.  From the same article:

“In 2003, the state Senate held two hearings to expose and apologize for the practice [of forced sterilization]. 

At the hearing, Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan professor and an expert on sterilization practices in California, said, “One of the goals … and this is critical to understanding the history of eugenics in California – was to save money: how to limit welfare and relief. And sterilization is very much tied up in this.”

When [Dr. James] Heinrich reflected on the $147,460 spent between 1997 and 2010 by the state of California on sterilizations of female prisoners, he demonstrated the mentality Stern referred to. 

“Over a 10-year period, that isn’t a huge amount of money compared to what you save in welfare paying for these unwanted children – as they procreated more,” Heinrich said.”

The assumptions are that these women would: a.) have only unwanted children b.) have no way to provide for them outside of public funds c.) not have a family structure in which to support them d.) not be connected to men, that is, the men who helped create these children would be absent.  In the line of thinking expressed by Dr. Heinrich, there is an assumption that the men who would father children by these women would have no sense of obligation to be involved or way to contribute to providing for them.

A significant portion of the California work around boys and men of color is focused on men who have been incarcerated.  This is restorative justice, not simply putting people “away.”  Restorative justice looks at all of the many sides of crime, but not by making excuses for people who break laws and cause harm in our society.  Rather, it seeks solutions in addition to punishment.  An important part of restorative justice is aligning formerly incarcerated men with jobs and removing barriers to their employability allowing them the resources to rebuild a productive life.  Underlying all of this work is the effort to change the assumptions about why someone is in the system, and what puts them there in the first place…changing the assumptions about boys and men of color in general.  When we look at youths (mostly men of color) being put in juvenile detention for “acting out” or eliciting behavior that would be seen as perfectly normal for an independent white male adult (Read More Here) there is no question that many are being taught to be incarcerated.  It is a crime that the system that is teaching them this way of life, then uses what they have learned as evidence against them to justify horrific practices like sterilization.  This cycle of oppression based on assumption of outcomes needs to end if there is going to be any real progress made for both communities of color and for the general population that carries the burden of our broken justice system.

There is hope.  California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has introduced a bill (SB 1135) that is one step in a lengthier and more complicated process of squashing assumptions and working to dismantle the prison industrial complex.  It is unique in that it speaks directly to the sexual health of inmates; it re-humanizes prisoners on the most personal level and seeks to give them the rights to their bodies that any living being should have.  In truth, the two (dismantling the PIC and sexuality) are linked.  Prison, as an industry, de-humanizes inmates by turning them into a commodified product…and the current trends that involve moving prisoners around for budgetary reasons and working with private, profit making incarceration agencies, makes this even clearer.  De-sexualizing prisoners is part of this commodification process.  Our ability to be sexual and express our identity through our gender and sexuality (whether that be through procreation, sexual preference or gender identity) is the most personal exclusive right that we have.  Without it, we lose an enormous part of who we are and how we are viewed by others.  Instead, lifting up the sexuality and gender of inmates is a very different approach to looking at the humanity of criminals, and it is an opportunity to re-imagine the realignment process and priorities.  Jackson’s bill is a start, and there can be more including increased protections and provisions against prison rape of both women and men (particularly young men of color – See Report: Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2012), appropriate services and facilities for transgender inmates, more stringent and thorough treatment and rehabilitation of legitimately dangerous sex offenders and much more comprehensive counseling and education for prison employees.

What these sterilizations amount to is systemic rape, of which people of color in this land have been the target since the beginning of European colonization.  It is a hold over of the tools that were used by the dominating patriarchy when Eugenics was born in this country out of concepts inherited from Sir Francis Galton in the 19th Century.  This “science” (based on controlling the evolution of the human species) became the foundation for not only forced sterilizations of people with “undesirable traits”, the disabled and “other bodied” people and in some cases homosexuals, but also the basis for miscegenation laws and a wide range of practices that can only be called American ethnic cleansing.  These sterilization practices reduce prisoners to the value or liability they represent to our economy.  In a way, they are no different than slaves who were forced into sex to increase their owners worth with more children or to satisfy their selfish urges.  Sterilization is an archaic instrument in the seemingly bottomless toolbox of oppression in the United States.  It needs to be put away once and for all along with the mercury pills, tools for blood-letting and the leeches.

There will always be criminals in a modern society and they must be dealt with appropriately.  But a truly just society does not actively seek to generate criminals to maintain a profit margin.  In addition, a just society asks itself first where the missed opportunities have been to allow every person a chance to thrive; not charity but meaningful change.  Overhauling the justice system, including eradicating the possibility for medical abuses of prisoners is part of the broader equation and it is the right thing to do.  After all, didn’t we abolished trading human lives as part of the free market economy in 1865?

A Well Toned 49

01330049Last Friday morning I completed a 10.75 mile run.  This was my third such run in a week and, as it turns out, I did another, shorter run in Stockton the following morning, clocking in a total of some 35 miles for the week. I decided late last year, that I wanted one of my goals for my 50th birthday to be to run a marathon on or around my birthday.  As luck would have it, the 2015 London Marathon is a few days after my 50th and I’m hoping to secure a space in it through the Alzheimer’s Society and do the run as part tribute to my mom who had the disease before she died and also as a celebration of making through 50 years in fairly good health.  I feel fantastic.

As I ran that morning in the dark and cool of the Berkeley hills, I found myself more focused than normal.  I was able to plug into a sense of my body and my gait and posture that in the end made the run feel fairly easy; even at the last big push through the 95 foot climb from Arch Street up to Euclid on Cedar (Berkeley folks will know it as one of the primary places where you would not like to do a hill start in a manual shift car.)  The most wonderful thing about getting into what is commonly known as “the zone” is that, beyond your body, you connect with thoughts and things that you had maybe let go of for a while.

I kept coming back to two things: my Great Uncle Ray and the Select Committee Hearing on Boys and Men of Color in Stockton I had participated in the previous day.  My Great Uncle Ray Lewis, was a Pullman Porter in Canada in the early and mid part of the last century.  He was also a 33rd degree Mason.  He was also Canada’s first black Olympic runner to win a medal (bronze 1932.)  I had the great fortune to know him late in his life when he was full of stories of running alongside the Canadian and Pacific Railroad cars to train and all of the many challenges that he was faced with as an athlete: people who tried to hurt him, unfair judging,etc.  I got to see his and his brothers and sister (my grandmother’s) room full of medals for athletics.  To me he was and will always be one of my greatest heroes.  But he was a man who was often faced with stark racism, keeping him out of jobs and other opportunities and he was forced to make tough choices about his life in order to keep some sense of sanity about him and food on the table.  As he entered his 93rd and final year of life, he too began to show signs of dementia and would frequently repeat some of his bawdier stories, much to the chagrin of my Great Aunt Vivienne, a woman who loved him passionately until the day he died and until the day she passed some 7 years later.

Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006

Me and Aunt Vivienne Lewis in 2006

Ray’s life was one where he was taught to constantly be on his guard.  It was not an easy life.  It was not a life of “get what you deserve” it was more a life of get what you can take and tolerate.  I can only imagine what went on inside of him and his heart after standing on an Olympic podium and then having to work on the train that took him back to Canada.

My other fixation that morning as I ran was hearing young men talk about their lives growing up “in trouble” in Stockton at the select committee hearing.  These are young men who have, for any number of reasons, fallen afoul of the law only to be incarcerated, even as young as 11 years old.  They are taught from this age, that being in prison is an option.  The game is to try to find any way possible to beat these odds.  As I listened to these young men testify, I was struck not only by their words and stories, but by what must go on inside their hearts in terms of always being on guard; always being taught that there is some kind of trap waiting.  I am incredibly moved by the work that is going on with these beautiful young men of color through Fathers and Families of San Joaquin County where they are actively engaging the youth to find ways to move their hearts and goals toward a better place.  It is huge and inspiring.

My mind also drifted toward a very different kind of reminder of how even in my sanitized and safe world, there is a kind of backhanded otherization that can leave a man of color feeling vulnerable.  The other day, I was joining a Skype conversation with a group of colleagues and as often happens with Skype, the audio was connected before the video.  What I was greeted with was a very spirited and involved conversation…about my age.  It was not really derogatory, but it still felt highly invasive.  My age (49) and my physical looks, are something that I have often had to either justify or explain and the sum total is something that people who don’t know me, often boil down to the “black don’t crack” saying or some other assumption about my racial background.  However, anyone who really knows me also knows that I work hard to stay healthy.  It is not just because I have melanin in my skin or because I have “good genes.”  I work tirelessly with my diet and exercise regimen (case in point, I did an hour and a half run at 5:00 a.m. on a weekday) and I have a serious dedication to managing stress, the real killer in our culture.  Embodiment is part of my ministry and I live it as faith every day.  There are plenty of people in my family who aged plenty, so its not just DNA.  What’s more, my goal has never been to look young, but to simply stay vital.  To have my effort reduced to my racial background is a slap in the face that I neither expect nor deserve and gratefully was not the case here to my knowledge.  But still, to have my age and looks and body as a topic for general discussion without my presence felt a bit like a throwback to the slave auction block.  As a black man, I’m not alone in having had the assessment of my physical self held up like a prize pig at a state fair.  Whether it be porn or prison, black and brown men’s bodies disconnected from their beings and their souls and their presence, is a significant and disgusting part of the history of this country. Objectification is objectification no matter how you look at it.

As every mile and hill ticked by during my run, I thought about what these thoughts have in common and and where they intersect in me.  I realized that each of these situations involve men of color who have grown up with a baseline anxiety about our place in this culture.  We have never been so cock sure of ourselves that we would take for granted that there would always be another opportunity, or another threat.  Instead, we look at every opportunity, whether it is presented by a good choice (running in the Olympics) or a bad choice (trying to make money selling drugs) or a natural choice (living a health centered life)…we look at each of these opportunities as if it is our last.  I find myself often making decisions as if I will somehow be permanently written off or that I will never have the opportunity again.  How many times was I told as a child that I would be the “last hired and first fired” or that I needed to be better than everyone just to get in the door?  When we talk in black and brown circles about trauma and “hyper vigilance” so often the conversation falls back on physical violence, guns, abuse, etc.  But there are so many other examples of ways in which men of color have learned to be “on guard” in addition to these other very real physical threats.  Its not always as simple as absorbing the subconscious thought that you may be seen as a predator by strangers.  Sometimes it is more subtle; a change in posture in an elevator or other closed space, a comment about your sexual anatomy, an assumption about your knowledge of guns, church and rap music or casual statements about your age and appearance.

There is strong evidence that points to hyper vigilance as being something that can be passed down.  This would mean that I carry not only my own struggles, but my parents’ struggles through the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s and also their parents’ struggles through the Great Migration and Harlem Renaissance and their parents’ struggles through Restoration and their parents’ struggles through slavery and so on.  If this is the case, then my DNA should have me looking much, much older than I do now.  This kind of science helps explain some of the continued struggle.  But what is really needed is a way to change the equation entirely where young men of color are not in a position to pass on another layer of trauma through hyper vigilance.  Men of color must rewrite and reclaim cultural narratives that have been invalidated by the mainstream.  The way we manage time and life priorities have all been laid out for us according to the dominant culture…but do we really own it?

I mentioned that I did a shorter run in Stockton the day after my 10 miles.  This was a Heart and Spirit Run with Fathers and Families.  It was part run and part vigil.  A small group of us ran to a series of locations around Stockton to where people had been killed, mostly due to gun violence.  The first stop was just around the corner from our starting point and you could still see the bullet holes in the wall and on the ground.  This set the tone for another kind of deep reflection in motion.  On that run, every step I took, every stop we made, I found myself imagining what the moment of confrontation felt like.  I run in the dark cool of the early morning of Berkeley mostly because it feels so incredibly safe, as if I am wrapped in a dark velvet blanket where the only sound is my heart and my breathing.  What a contrast to imagine the night as a terror that might be ripped by the pop, pop, pop of gunfire aimed at me.  I looked at the young men and women I was running with, who live in Stockton, and I could see both the memories and the real live knowledge of having been hurt physically and or mentally by these crimes.  But I could also see a spark, something that kept them running on to the end of our journey, no matter if you need to stop and take a rest…keep going, make it to the end.  They believe deeply in their hearts that this nightmare can end and that they have a right to be able to run freely in the street and feel safe.  I believe it as well. 

At the end of my 10 mile run, as I clipped down the final hill and up to the rise to where I had started, I knew that I had made good time.  The sunlight indicated to me that it was no more than 6:40am which meant that I managed my distance in somewhere around 1.5 hours.  I felt tremendous as I stopped.  Not winded; heart beating only a little faster than normal.  In that space of still feeling “the zone” and feeling entirely at one with my body, I had a brief moment of total freedom; sheer joy and exhilaration.  I felt the blood of my Uncle Ray and the potential of my brothers and sisters in Stockton and the vitality that I have cultivated and protected for 49 years coursing through my veins.  I know that men of color can end the history of hereditary hyper vigilance.  We can set the goal of running the distance, find our stride and get in the zone.  We shall not be measured by trauma alone.