Reparations for Survivors of CA Forced Sterilizations

theguardian.com

Survivors of California’s forced sterilizations: ‘It’s like my life wasn’t worth anything’

Erin McCormick

July 19, 2021


It wasn’t until years after Kelli Dillon went into surgery while incarcerated in the California state prison system that she realized her reproductive capacity had been stripped away without her knowledge.

In 2001, at the age of 24, she became one of the most recent victims in a history of forced sterilizations in California that stretches back to 1909 and served as an inspiration for Nazi Germany’s eugenics program.

But now, under new provisions signed into California’s 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 deemed “criminal”, “feeble-minded” or “deviant”.

The program will be the first in the nation to provide compensation to modern-day survivors of prison system sterilizations, like Dillon, whose attorney obtained medical records to show that, while she was an inmate in the Central California women’s facility in Chowchilla, surgeons had removed her ovaries during what was supposed to be an operation to take a biopsy and remove a cyst.

The investigations sparked by her case, which is featured in the documentary Belly of the Beast, showed hundreds of inmates had been sterilized in prisons without proper consent as late as 2010, even though the practice was by then illegal.

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living survivors of the state’s earlier eugenics campaign, which was first codified into state law in 1909 and wasn’t repealed until 1979.

That law allowed state authorities to sterilize people in state-run institutions, who were deemed to have “mental disease which may have been inherited” and was “likely to be transmitted to descendants”. The law was later greatly expanded to include “those suffering from perversion or marked departures from normal mentality”. Those targeted were often Black or Latina women, though some men were sterilized as well.

“California established these egregious eugenics laws, that were actually even followed by Hitler himself, in an effort to curb the population of unwanted individuals or people with disabilities,” said the state assemblywoman Wendy Carrillo, who introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program.

Wendy Carrillo introduced the bill to create the compensation program. Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

She said, in all, more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, including the historic cases prior to 1979 and hundreds of additional cases in the prisons documented until 2010. Many of the historical survivors have since died, but the state believes about 400 are still living, about a quarter of whom are expected to apply for compensation.

“No monetary compensation will ever rectify the injustice of this,” said Carrillo. “But there is a level of dignity that is bestowed on the survivors by the [state’s] acknowledgment that this happened. If we don’t do this now, when will we?”

She hopes that each qualified applicant to the program will get about $25,000 starting in 2022.

‘Saturated with racism, sexism and prejudice’

The state follows North Carolina and Virginia in developing programs to provide compensation for sterilizations that took place in the state-sanctioned eugenics programs of the mid 1900s, but California is the first to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases in the prisons. Three previous attempts to create a reparations program have failed to make it through the California legislature.

From its outset at the turn of the 20th century, the state’s eugenics campaign was steeped in the kind of racist thinking that would eventually lead to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, said Alexandra Minna Stern, a University of Michigan historian who first uncovered file cabinets filled with medical records of early California victims in 2007 in the course of researching a book on American eugenics.

“A lot of this came out as ideas of using science for the common good, human improvement, race improvement,” she said. “Of course, all that was saturated with the racism, sexism and disability prejudices of the era.”

One well-documented victim was Andrea Garcia, a 19-year-old born in Mexico, who was sterilized in 1941 under the orders of an asylum near Los Angeles for those “afflicted with feeblemindedness”. Staff there decided she shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce because she was a “mentally deficient, sex delinquent girl” from an “unfit home”, according a dissertation by Natalie Lira, a University of Michigan researcher who reviewed historic medical documents of the sterilizations uncovered by Stern.

Garcia’s mother went to court to challenge the sterilization policy, but lost her case. Both 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 photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s.

Stacy Cordova, whose aunt was a victim of California’s forced sterilization program that began in 1909, holds a framed photo of her aunt Mary Franco, who was sterilised in the 1930s. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP

Lira also outlined the case of 14-year-old Antonio Duran, who was sterilized in 1939, after being charged with burglary and painted as a criminal for entering a house and taking several items. The sterilization requests described him as “high tempered, unreliable, an habitual truant and a bully” and said his parents were “of low-grade Mexican mentality”.

Stern said this kind of egregious thinking wasn’t wiped out when California finally took the eugenics law off its books in 1979, around the time it also began closing the state institutions that for decades had warehoused people with mental illness and those deemed unfit for society.

She said she believes it is no coincidence that this is the same time period when the state’s prison population began to explode in an unforgiving era of mass incarceration, which she said saw many of those same people, often poor people of color, being incarcerated in prisons for long periods. It isn’t a big stretch to see how prison officials could begin abusing their power in a renewed push to prevent their charges from reproducing, Stern said.

“I see a lot of similar ingredients and sets of pre-conditions that allowed for [later] sterilization abuse in the prisons,” she said.

After undergoing sterilization without her consent or knowledge, Kelli Dillon said she began experiencing menopause symptoms when she was only 24.

“They weren’t telling me what they did and my body was going haywire,” said Dillon, who was released from prison in 2009 and now runs her own non-profit domestic violence counseling and violence prevention program and serves on a family services commission for the city of Los Angeles.

At the time, she was serving a 15-year manslaughter term for killing her abusive husband, after, she said, he hit her with an iron and threatened her two young sons.

Dillon said she had authorized the prison doctors to give her a hysterectomy only if cancer was found in the surgery, but no signs of cancer were ever reported.

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

“It was like my life wasn’t worth anything,” she said. “Somebody felt I had nothing to contribute to the point where they had to find this sneaky and diabolical way to take my ability to have children.”

A quest for justice, but concerns remain

While still incarcerated at Central California women’s facility, Dillon began to realize that many of her fellow inmates were getting hysterectomies and sterilization procedures as well. Sometimes it was after giving birth, while others had procedures that they were told were necessary to look for cancers or correcting gynecological issues. And so with her attorney, Cynthia Chandler, she began gathering the stories of other inmates.

Eventually, this led to an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) that identified 132 cases of women being given tubal ligation sterilizations in the prisons without proper state approvals and a 2014 state audit, which found nearly 800 hysterectomies and other sterilizations were performed there.

One of the prison doctors told CIR that he viewed sterilization as a way to prevent prisoners from procreating and having “unwanted children” that could cost the state money.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler.

Kelli Dillon and her attorney, Cynthia Chandler. Photograph: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast

“He articulated that it was a cost-effective way of preventing people from needing welfare,” said attorney Chandler. “He actually thought he was doing the taxpayers a favor.”

Chandler began working on the case in the early 2000s while with the prisoner rights advocacy group Justice Now, which she co-founded. She eventually helped to get a bill passed to make it clear that prison sterilizations are illegal and has been fighting to get compensation for survivors ever since.

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

While an inmate at Valley state prison for women in 2003, Gabriela Solano underwent a surgery in which doctors said they were going to remove her swollen left ovary, but at the end they told her they had removed her right ovary instead, she told the Guardian.

When she questioned her prison doctors about it later, she said he told her “what do you care? You’re a lifer anyway.”

“I just remember him saying that to me,” she told the Guardian in a call from Mexico, where she now lives. “A lot of the girls I knew went through unnecessary hysterectomies.”

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

Prisoners, people with disabilities and people of color “are still considered to be at the margins of our society and not worth the bother of dignity or respect by many”, said Hafsah Al-Amin, the program coordinator for the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which has worked with many of the current and former inmates who may be eligible for the compensation.

California is the first state to recognize and attempt to atone for much more recent cases of forced sterilization in the prisons.

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

“When people hear the term eugenics they often think of something that happened a long time ago,” said Lorena García Zermeño, the policy and communications coordinator for the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, a co-sponsor of the bill. “But the legacy of eugenics continues to this day.”

She pointed to recent reports of women detained in US immigration centers being unnecessarily sterilized. But she also said health disparities, such as the huge numbers of Black people and Latinos who have died of Covid-19, are rooted in the same sense of disregard for the lives of people of color and poor people.

“It’s extremely important for the state to confront the racist, sexist, ableist beliefs that perpetuate health disparities happening now.”

Dillon said the idea that California is finally going to compensate eugenics survivors makes her feel like spinning in the streets like the 1970s television character Mary Tyler Moore, who played a TV journalist.

What finally helped her 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 was given an opportunity, praise God, to have children before I went to prison,” she said. “And, through that, I now have the chance to be a mom or mother figure to my grandchildren.”

CA Approves $7.5 million Reparations for Sterilization Survivors

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

July 13, 2021

CONTACT:

California Coalition for Women Prisoners: info@womenprisoners.org

Aminah Elster: aminah@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 ext. 314

Hafsah Al-Amin: hafsah@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 ext. 314

California Approves $7.5 Million to Provide Reparations to Survivors of State Sponsored Forced Sterilizations

Sacramento, California (July, 2021) — On July 12, 2021 Governor Gavin Newsom approved a state budget that includes $7.5 million to provide reparations to survivors of state sponsored forced or involuntary sterilizations under California’s eugenics laws from 1909-1979 and to survivors of involuntary sterilizations in women’s state prisons after 1979. Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo was instrumental in ensuring that the allocation was included in the state budget.

California is the first state to provide reparations to survivors who were sterilized while incarcerated in its state women’s prisons. California is the third state in the nation to provide monetary compensation to survivors who were sterilized under state eugenics laws. 

“The legacy of California’s eugenics laws is well-known and the repercussions continue to be felt,” said Laura Jimenez, Executive Director, CLRJ. “As reproductive justice advocates, we recognize the continued impact these state-sponsored policies have had on the dignity and rights of poor women of color who have been stripped of their ability to form the families they want. No amount of monetary compensation will ever remedy the wrongs committed but this bill is a step in the right direction in the state taking responsibility to remedy the violence inflicted on these survivors.”

Between 1909 and 1979, California sterilized at least 20,000 people under State law — accounting for one third of eugenics sterilizations nationwide. People with disabilities, Latinas, women, and poor people were disproportionately targeted for sterilization.

Staff Attorney Carly A. Myers stated, “After 4 years of advocating for reparations, the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF) is heartened that California has taken a necessary f step towards ending its legacy of eugenics. We are hopeful this marks a turning point in this State’s treatment of people with disabilities and others who have been targeted for reproductive oppression.”

Although the State repealed its eugenics law in 1979, coerced and forced sterilizations continued in State prisons into the 2010’s.  Attorney Cynthia Chandler, who has spent the last two decades advocating for imprisoned sterilization survivors, points out: “Forced and involuntary sterilizations have never stopped in California.  Lack of government accountability for its eugenic past made possible the contemporary sterilization abuse in CA prisons and more recently in the Georgia Irwin immigration detention center.”

Between 2006 and 2010, a state audit revealed that at least 144 people, the majority of whom identify as Black and Latinx, were illegally sterilized during labor and delivery while in custody in women’s prisons. 

“The California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP) hails this groundbreaking reparations program for incarcerated women and trans people who suffered involuntary sterilization while in California prisons,” stated Aminah Elster, CCWP’s Campaign and Policy Coordinator. “We hope this victory paves the way for other BIPOC communities to achieve additional forms of reparations in response to centuries of state sanctioned violence and abuse.”  Elster went on to comment, “CCWP and the co-sponsor organizations are committed to ensuring that all the eligible survivors of sterilization abuse are notified and able to apply for compensation under the program.  We are in touch with many incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people who should be eligible for compensation but there is a lot more outreach that needs to be done.”

Coerced sterilization of people in women’s prisons was the subject of the feature-length documentary, Belly of the Beast which was released in fall 2020. “I’m thrilled Belly of the Beast contributed to this historic moment and we will continue to shine a light on our nation’s dark past until these heinous practices are eradicated,” says Director/Producer Erika Cohn. The PBS re-release, in celebration of this historic victory, starts today on PBS.org: https://www.pbs.org/video/belly-of-the-beast-7puv5r/ and will be streaming for free through the end of July.

Sterilization survivor and film participant, Kelli Dillon, who is also the founder of the organization Back to the Basics says, “To this day, many survivors who were sterilized while in prison still don’t know that their reproductive capacities were stolen from them. With the launch of reparations, we will finally receive justice that we have fought so long for and the healing process can truly begin. It’s time.”

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This budget request was co-sponsored by Back tothe Basics Community Empowerment (B2B), California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), California Latinas forReproductive Justice (CLRJ), and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), in collaboration with the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab.

Gwen Levi Freed by Judge thru Compassionate Release

commondreams.org

Gwen Levi’s Release Reveals Persistent Cruelty of Mass Incarceration—Biden Must Use Clemency Powers to Stop Spread of COVID-19

July 6, 2021


For Immediate Release

Tuesday July 6, 2021, 4:13pm EDT

Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns at Color Of Change, issued this statement after a federal judge granted compassionate release to 76-year-old Gwen Levi:

“After weeks of legal battles and hard-fought advocacy from her family and supporters, Gwen Levi is finally free. Ms. Levi, a 76-year-old mother, grandmother, friend, and cancer survivor, was serving a sentence on home confinement, due to the dire health concerns in prison facilities at the height of the pandemic. But after she missed a call from a case manager during a computers skills class that she believed, with good reason, she had been approved to attend, Ms. Levi was deemed an ‘escapee,’ once again ripped from her family, and returned to jail — where she faced a high risk for COVID-19 infection and even death — on a technicality. Today, this judge’s ruling confirms what we’ve known all along: mass incarceration is a threat to health, safety, and basic human rights of Black communities, particularly in the midst of a global health crisis.

“However, for nearly 4,500 people 65 years and older, who were released to home confinement due to COVID-19, the threat of re-incarceration remains. Not just as a result of these draconian technical violations, but as the result of a legal memo issued days before Trump left office, stating that people would be returned to prison once the pandemic is declared over. For months, we have urged officials to rescind the Trump administration’s legal memo and keep elderly and immunocompromised individuals at home. But because of their inaction, thousands are at risk of being returned to prison like Ms. Levi was. Now, the only way to protect these individuals is with presidential clemency. We — along with nearly 50,000 Color Of Change members who’ve signed our petition — are urging President Biden to use his clemency powers to stop the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons, protect the sick and elderly, and keep them home.

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Clemency for Gwen Levi

After spending 16 years incarcerated in federal prisons, Gwen Levi was finally home.

Released to home confinement last June, Ms. Levi spent the past year reconnecting with her sons and grandsons, helping to take care of her elderly mother, volunteering at advocacy organizations that provide critical services for incarcerated people, and perhaps most crucially – increasing her chances of staying safe from COVID-19 as a 76-year-old cancer survivor. 

But one year after her release, Ms. Levi was sent back to prison. 

Why? Because she missed a phone call from her case manager while she was in a class to learn computer skills in order to get a job as an essential worker. 

Ms. Levi was one of thousands of people, deemed “low risk”, and released from federal prison to finish their sentences on home confinement last year due to the increased threat of the pandemic in prisons. The vast majority of those released were elderly and living with preexisting health conditions, often exacerbated by the lack of healthcare within the prison system. 

But even despite the 99.9% success rate of home confinement, the Trump Administration used its final days to issue a legal memo that would not only force people to return to federal prison, but also require people to pay their own way back. 

We tried to move the Department of Justice to rescind the memo, but were met with silence. Now Ms. Levi is back in a cage. 

Now is the time to call on President Biden to use his powers of clemency to release Ms. Levi from prison and protect 4,500 others just like her who are at risk of being sent back when the pandemic is declared over.  

It’s clear that this is about punishment, not public safety or rehabilitation. Ms. Levi was trying to better herself and as a result was sent to live in a cage.

If the Biden Administration won’t grant clemency to Ms. Levi and keep 4,500 people at home – he will be presiding over the fastest expansion of the federal prison population in history.

This is not what we voted for. 

Ms. Levi deserves better, and she needs our support. 

Add your name to the call for justice. Let’s move President Biden to grant clemency for Ms. Levi and 4,500 others on home confinement. 

A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison.

Washington Post

By Justin Wm. Moyer and Neena Satija
June 26, 2021 PDT

Gwen Levi, shown in Baltimore while on home confinement, is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility.

In the year she was out of prison, Gwen Levi, 76, was thriving.

After serving 16 years in different federal facilities for dealing heroin, Levi was allowed to leave last June and finish her 24-year sentence in home confinement under the supervision of federal prison officials. She moved in with her 94-year-old mother in Baltimore and volunteered at prisoner advocacy organizations, hoping for a paying job to come along. She was also building her relationships with her sons and grandsons.

But Levi’s season on the outside ended June 12 after she attended a computer word-processing class in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A Federal Bureau of Prisons incident report said she was out of contact for a few hours with the officials supervising her.

Levi is now at the D.C. jail awaiting transfer to a federal facility, according to her attorney, Sapna Mirchandani, of Maryland’s Office of the Federal Public Defender.

“There’s no question she was in class,” Mirchandani said. “As I was told, because she could have been robbing a bank, they’re going to treat her as if she was robbing a bank.”

Levi is one of about 4,500 federal prisoners sent to home confinement last year to protect them from contracting the coronavirus. Advocates celebrated the move by the Trump administration and expected that President Biden would continue to keep former inmates home even after the pandemic receded.

But while Biden has taken steps supported by criminal justice advocates, the White House has appeared to follow President Donald Trump’s lead with respect to a Justice Department memo calling for nearly all people to return to prison when the public health emergency ends.

Inmates sent home amid pandemic may have to return under Trump-era policy

The administration hasn’t weighed in on the binding Justice Department memo, issued in the final days of Trump’s presidency. The White House and Justice Department wouldn’t comment when asked by The Washington Post about the return of inmates to prison on seemingly minor violations.

Kristie A. Breshears, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said in an email that the agency cannot discuss individual cases. However, sanctions “are not imposed in a capricious or retaliatory manner,” she said, and bureau staff “are the determining factor when making determinations regarding transferring an inmate back to secure custody.”

Breshears added that the Bureau of Prisons could decide to allow inmates near the end of their sentences to stay on home confinement after the pandemic.

“For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over,” she said. “The president recently extended the national emergency and the Department of Health and Human Services has said the public health crisis is likely to last for the rest of the year.”

Biden administration endorses bill to end disparity in drug sentencing between crack and powder cocaine

According to Levi’s Bureau of Prisons incident report, the officials supervising her were alerted by her ankle monitor at 10:51 a.m. that she was not home. She did not answer calls to her phone for the next few hours. By 1:17 p.m., the ankle monitor showed she was back at her approved address. The report noted the incident as an “escape.”

In a statement released by Mirchandani, Levi said she was “devastated.”

“I feel like I was attempting to do all the right things,” Levi said. “Breaking rules is not who I am. I tried to explain what happened, and to tell the truth. At no time did I think I wasn’t supposed to go to that class. I apologize to my mother and my family for what this is doing to them.”

Biden launches an effort to head off violent crime — and political peril for his party

Other prisoners released to home confinement during the pandemic also are being sent back.

Lynn Espejo was sentenced to 45 months for filing false tax returns, wire fraud and money laundering in the Eastern District of Arkansas in 2017. In an interview, she said she was released in May last year, got a job at her church and re-enrolled in graduate school, where she was completing a master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling. She also writes a blog focused on inmates’ rights and hosts a radio show

On Jan. 12, according to Bureau of Prisons documents, Espejo was written up for emailing inmates — “[v]iolating a condition of a community program” by “communicating with inmates currently incarcerated in numerous Federal Prisons,” according to the incident report. She was reincarcerated Jan. 12 and released Jan. 27 after a judge allowed her to be returned home because of health issues.

Espejo, who has since completed her degree, said she believes she was sent back to prison as retaliation for her activism. About 153,000 inmates are in the custody of the bureau, a 20-year low.

“You cannot hold someone’s freedom of speech over their head on home confinement,” she said.

Breshears said she could not comment on an individual inmate’s conditions of confinement.

Frail inmates could be sent home to prevent the spread of covid-19. Instead, some are dying in federal prisons.

Kevin Ring, president of nonprofit prisoner advocacy organization Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said returning people on home confinement to prison for minor violations is “counter to human nature.” The Biden administration should say whether it will rescind the Trump administration memo, he said.

“This is exactly what we feared from them delaying resolution of this issue,” he said. “Every day is torture. They’re worried about going back to prison. .?.?. Waiting is the hardest part.”

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, said that if the Justice Department won’t rescind the memo, the Biden administration could use another legal tool: clemency. Osler said he has spoken to administration officials about that possibility.

But such grants could prove controversial as Biden announces measures to combat violent crime amid an increase in violenceacross the country.

The transfer of prisoners to home confinement during the pandemic has proved to be safe, Osler said. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal said three inmates transferred to home confinement have been arrested on new charges.

“The facade of their incarceration in the interest of public safety has been knocked over,” Osler said.

As national leaders debate criminal justice, Levi is back behind bars. Her son Craig Levi said it was a blessing to have his mother home. Now, she’s gone.

“We don’t understand how it escalated,” he said. “It’s unjustified — the stress that they put on the family.”

By Justin Wm. Moyer—Justin Wm. Moyer is a breaking news reporter for The Washington Post. After a long stint as a contributing writer at the Washington City Paper, he came to The Post in 2008, becoming an editor in Outlook and for the Morning Mix, The Post’s overnight team. He became a reporter in 2015. Twitter

By Neena Satija—Neena Satija has been an investigative reporter for The Washington Post since January 2019. She was previously an investigative reporter and radio producer for the Texas Tribune and Reveal, a national radio show and podcast. Twitter