Exploring the stories of women who live by a ride-or-die philosophy

[ESSAY] The Complex Web of Illegal Sterilization, Black Women and Racism

By Hannah K. Moore

The complexity of violations against the sexual and reproductive rights of black women is even more complex in the context of prison. The violations connected to women’s prisons remain obscured by the social invisibility of the prison system (Davis, 2001). In the context of California State prisons there has been a long and complex history in relation to sterilization violations. This complex web consists of actors such as the prison industrial complex, the eugenics movement, state laws in California and built into all of it is racism; the underlining factor.

”Today, the state of California alone has more women in prison than it had in all of the United States in 1970 ” (Davis, 2001).

In addition to being the leader in the construction of prisons in the country, California was also the leader of the Eugenics movement. In fact, in the 1930’s Nazi Germany consulted with the head of the eugenics movement in California to develop their eugenics process (Johnson, 2013).

The prison industrial complex is understood as the powerful system which connects the privatization of prisons, with laws, and policies.

”The proliferation of prisons and prisoners is more clearly linked to structures and political and economic ideologies larger than the individual criminal conduct and efforts to curb crime ” (Davis, 2001).

Between 1981-1989 President Reagan’s response to the resistance by taxpayers to continue to fund the prison system combined with his ‘tough on crime’ policies made this complex and economic system become an intricate part of the economic political system of the US. It privileged the profitability of punishment at the expense of human formation and transformation (Davis, 2001). At a time when social services, which historically worked to support communities in need, was being eliminated and resources for health and education were diminishing, prison was the default (Davis, 2001) .Prisons began to receive more resources than others services, and in 1995, the prison budget was more than that of education in the state of California (Davis, 2001). With the growth of prisons, so grew the war on drugs. Black and Latino communities were most affected by this paradigm shift. To understand why, we have to understand how the prison system is inherently directed by and based in racism. Black people in the United States only make up 14% of the general population but have comprised 80% of the prison population over the last 10 years. As a result various scholars have written on the role of race and racism in prison system (Alexander, 2010). It is important to note though that racism in the prison system cannot be disconnected from gender. All prison practices differ with respect to the intersection of race, gender and sexuality (Davis, 2001). Black women in the U.S. are highly affected by this system and have an increased likelihood to be in the prison system; they make up the majority of the population of women’s prisons (Davis, 2001). Statistically a black woman in the United States is 8 times more likely to be found in prison than a white woman (Davis, 2001).

“Black women make up the largest percentage of the prison population (48%), and 35% in federal detention centers, even if they are only approximately 13% of the general population’’ (Davis, 2001).


The history of sterilization in the US is a deep and extensive one. In the United States, California has a more particular story yet. Being the leader of the Eugenics Movement, California had mandatory sterilization laws which were historically driven by the racist origins of the Eugenics Movement. The eugenics movement was proposed by white supremacy as “scientific evidence” for the inferiority of “other races”.

In early 1900 one of the first mandatory sterilization laws was created, enforcing the sterilization of

” …… minority groups, the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill and criminals who were identified as inferior and sterilized to prevent further spread of their genes” (Johnson, Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons without approval, 2013).

This movement and its actions were so strong that between 1909 and 1964 about 20,000 men and women in the State of California were sterilized (Johnson, Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons without approval, 2013). This movement of sterilization caught international attention and in 1903 Germany consulted California to adopt the practices of sterilization (Johnson, Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons without approval, 2013). The base of eugenics was in the sciences; this gave more meaning to the power of the movement. In 1909, the state of California considered connecting the sciences with social problems and created the third sterilization law in the country. This law granted the doctors of nursing homes and prison authorities to “Asexualize” a ‘sick’ person, where such a measure would improve their physical, moral, mental condition” (Alexandra Minna Stern, 2005). Due to its basis in science, sterilization was utilized as a ‘solution’ for many years. In the state of California sterilization was not considered punishment, but a strategy of public health (Alexandra Minna Stern, 2005). The Eugenics movement proposed sterilization as a tool to strengthen the state.

It is in this context of the prison industrial complex and sterilization with roots based in the Eugenics Movement, where we find the violations against black women in prison in California. These violations against black women in prison manifest in various forms:

” Medical malpractice, sexual abuse, lack of reproductive control, loss of parental rights, the denial of legal rights and remedies, the devastating effects of isolation and of course, arbitrary discipline ” (Davis, 2001).

The invisibility of being in prison furthers the invisibility of being black and female, which politically allows for more opportunities of violation.

California has a strong history with sterilization, and it continues to be practiced in prisons. Sterilization is currently illegal, by law, state officials banned the practice in 1979 (Johnson, Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons without approval, 2013) however violations continue to occur. Between 2006 and 2010 almost 150 women were sterilized in women’s prisons in California without state authorization (Johnson, California was sterilizing its female prisoners the late the 2010, 2013). The context of these illegal sterilizations in prisons is one of coercion. In a report made by the investigative journalism center in California in 2012, various interviews with women who had been sterilized were uncovered. In an interview with a black woman prisoner, she stated that when she was pregnant and at the time of giving birth, a prison doctor chose that vulnerable moment to suggest sterilization for her (Johnson, Female Inmates in Sterilized California Prisons without approval, 2013). In an interview with the doctor in one of the women’s prisons in California, he justified the sterilizations saying that

“Sterilization is cheaper than what the state would spend on welfare for unwanted children” (Johnson , Female Inmates Sterilized in California Prisons without approval, 2013).

His statement enforces the American myth that black women only have children to receive state money (Hancock, 2004).

Illegally coerced sterilization of black women in prisons in California continues behind the veil of bureaucracy based in a history of Eugenics and institutionally racist practices. Violations are being revealed by organizations allied with women in prison situations; however the power of the prisons system requires great pressure to end such violations.

“Any imposition on reproductive rights is an injustice against the welfare of households, the rights of women, children and grandchildren, or the promise of the future “(Davis, 2001).


For resources or more information or how you can support the movement to end illegal sterilization

Please contact:

The Center for Investigative reporting (CIR)

  • 1400 65th St., Suite 200Emeryville, CA 94608
  • Phone 510-809-3160 (main line)
  • Fax 510-652-1792

Justice Now

  • 1322 Webster St, Suite 210 Oakland CA 94612
  • Phone 510-839-7654
  • Fax 510 -839-7615

Our Bodies Our Selves


Works Cited

Alexander, M. (n.d.). (2010) The New Jim Crow.

Alexandra Minna Stern, P. (2005). Sterilized in the name of public health. American Journal of Public Health.

Crenshaw, K. (n.d.). Documento Para O Econtro de especialistas em aspects da discriminacao racial relativos ao genero.

Davis, C. S. (2001). Race, Gender andthe prison industrial complex California and Beyond. Meridians, 1-25.

Hancock, A.-M. (2004). The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen. New York: NYU Press.

Johnson, C. (2013, Nov). California was sterilizing its female prisoners as late as 2010. The Guardian.

Johnson, C. (2013). Female Inmates Steralized in California Prisons without approval. Center for Investigative Reporting.


 Hannah K. Moore | Core Writer 




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