Survivors of forced sterilizations in California: ‘As if my life was worth nothing’ | California

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Survivors of forced sterilizations in California: ‘As if my life was worth nothing’ | California

IIt wasn’t until years after Kelly Dillon underwent surgery while imprisoned in California The state prison system in which she realized her reproductive ability had been stripped without her knowledge.

In 2001, when she was 24, she became one of the latest victims in the history of forced sterilizations in California going back to 1909 and served as the inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.

But now, under new provisions signed into California’s state budget this week, the state will offer Reparations for the thousands of people who were sterilized in California institutions, without adequate consent, often because they were considered “criminals”, “poor minded” or “deviants”.

The program would be the first in the state to offer compensation to modern survivors of prison system sterilizations, such as Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to prove that while she was an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chuchilla, surgeons had her ovaries removed during what were supposed to An operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.

The Investigations She raised her case, which appeared in the documentary belly of the beast, showed that hundreds of prisoners were sterilized in prisons without proper consent until late 2010, even though the practice was illegal at the time.

California’s new reparations program will also seek to compensate hundreds of living survivors of the state’s eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and not repealed until 1979.

This law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions who were deemed to have a “mental illness that may be inherited” and “likely to be passed on to their descendants.” The law was later expanded significantly to include “those who suffer from deviation or marked deviation from normal mentality”. The targets were mostly black or Latino women, although some men were also sterilized.

“California created these scandalous eugenics laws, which were in fact followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to rein in unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said State Assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill creating the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo submitted the bill to create the compensation program.
Wendy Carrillo submitted the bill to create the compensation program. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/A. B

In all, she said, more than 20,000 people have been sterilized in California, including historical cases before 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in prisons documented through 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 of them have died. . They are still alive, and about a quarter are expected to apply for compensation.

“No monetary compensation will correct this unfairness,” Carrillo said. But there is a level of dignity he gives survivors [state’s] Acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when are we going to do it? “

She hopes that each eligible applicant for the program will earn approximately $25,000 starting in 2022.

Imbued with racism, sexism and prejudice

The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that occurred in state-sanctioned eugenics programs in the mid-20th century, but California is the first to admit and attempt to atone for more recent cases in prisons. Three previous attempts to create a compensation program failed to pass the California legislature.

From its inception at the turn of the 20th century, Alexandra Mina Stern, a University of Michigan historian, said, the state’s eugenics campaign was mired in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. With the medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of the search for a A book on American eugenics.

“A lot of this emerged as ideas for using science for the greater good, the betterment of man, the betterment of race,” she said. “Of course, it was all imbued with the racism, sexism, and disability of that era.”

One of the well-documented victims was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 on orders from an asylum near Los Angeles for those “mentally weak”. Staff there decided she should not be allowed to have children because she was a “mentally deficient, sexually perverted girl” from an “improper home,” according to thesis Written by Natalie Lyra, a researcher at the University of Michigan who reviewed historical medical documents for Stern’s sterilizations.

Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. The mother and daughter have since died.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California's forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed picture of her aunt Marie Franco, who was sterilized in the 1930s.
Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed picture of her aunt Marie Franco, who was sterilized in the 1930s. Photo: Jae C Hong/AP

Lyra also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Doran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being accused of burglary and portraying him as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “extremely irritable, unreliable, habitual absentee, and bully” and said his parents were “low-minded Mexicans”.

This kind of egregious thinking wasn’t eliminated when California finally scrapped the eugenics law from its books in 1979, Stern said, at the time it also began shutting down state institutions that for decades had been hoarding mentally ill people and those deemed unfit for society. .

She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period that state prison inmates began to explode into an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, and that many of these people, often poor white people, are incarcerated in prison, she said. . prisons for long periods. Stern said seeing how prison officials could begin to abuse their power in a renewed effort to prevent the proliferation of their charges is not a big deal.

“I see a lot of similar ingredients and combinations of preconditions that allowed for it [later] “The abuse of sterilization in prisons,” she said.

After being sterilized without her consent or knowledge, Kelly Dillon said she began experiencing menopausal symptoms when she was just 24 years old.

“They didn’t tell me what they did and my body was turning into a meltdown,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and works on the Family Services Committee. for the city of Los Angeles.

At the time, she was serving a manslaughter sentence for killing her abusive husband, she said, after he beat her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.

Dillon said she only allowed prison doctors to perform a hysterectomy on her if cancer was found in surgery, but that no signs of cancer were ever reported.

She said the sterilization shattered her dreams of one day restarting her family and leaving her with anxiety and depression.

“It was like my life was worth nothing,” she said. “Someone felt that I had nothing to contribute to that they had to find this insidious and diabolical way to take away my ability to have children.”

The pursuit of justice, but concerns remain

While she was still incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were undergoing hysterectomies and sterilizations as well. Sometimes it was after childbirth, while others had procedures they were told were needed to look for cancers or correct gynecological problems. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began collecting the stories of other prisoners.

In the end, this resulted in a file An investigation by the Center for Journalistic Investigations (CIR) that identified 132 cases of women who underwent tubal ligation sterilization in prisons without proper state approval, 2014 state audit, which found nearly 800 hysterectomies and other sterilizations performed there

A prison doctor CIR said He considered sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from having children and having “unwanted children”, which would cost state money.

Kelly Dillon and her lawyer Cynthia Chandler.
Kelly Dillon and her lawyer Cynthia Chandler. Photo: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast

“He’s made it clear that it’s a cost-effective way to prevent people from needing luxury,” Chandler said. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayer a favor.”

Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while working with the prisoner advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped pass a bill to make prison sterilization illegal and has struggled to get survivors compensation ever since.

The procedures often left patients unclear what had happened to them.

When she was an inmate at the Valley State Penitentiary for Women in 2003, Gabriella Solano underwent surgery in which doctors said they would remove her swollen left ovary, but eventually told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian. .

When she later questioned her prison doctors about this, she said he told her, “What do you care? You are a believer anyway.”

“I remember him saying that to me,” she told The Guardian on a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of girls I know have had unnecessary hysterectomies.”

But many advocates of the new compensation program worry that the same sentiments that allowed past eugenics abuses to occur continue to permeate American culture.

Hafsa Al-Amin, program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, said that prisoners, people with disabilities, and people of color “are still considered on the fringes of our society and deserving of dignity or respect by many.” that has worked with several current and former inmates who may be eligible for compensation.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for more recent cases of forced sterilization in prisons.
California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for more recent cases of forced sterilization in prisons. Photo: Ric Francis/AP

“When people hear the term eugenics, they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena Garcia Zerminio, policy and communications coordinator for California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, one of the bill’s sponsors. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”

She pointed to the last Reports of women held in US immigration centers are unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of blacks and Latinos who have died from Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of indifference to the lives of people of color and the poor.

“It is extremely important for the country to confront the racist, sexist, and capable beliefs that perpetuate the health disparities that are occurring now.”

The idea that California would finally make up for eugenic survivors, Dillon said, makes her feel like she’s circling the streets like TV personality Mary Tyler Moore in the 1970s, who played a TV journalist.

What helped her finally come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t have children, she said, was getting to know her now eight-year-old grandson.

“I had a chance, thank God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And through that, I now have a chance to be a mother figure or a mother to my grandchildren.”

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