California survivors, descendants able to claim for 1909 to present-day trauma
By Ashley Woods
The deadline is nearing for the tens of thousands of mostly Black, Latino, and Native American women sterilized in California's state-run prisons and mental institutions to register for compensation. Following a state law passed in 2021, those sterilized without consent while incarcerated in California’s women’s prisons are eligible for at least $15,000.
The California Victim Compensation Board received 510 applications as of Oct. 25, according to data provided by the state. As the Dec. 31 deadline for survivors to apply approaches, state data shows that less than 500 victims or their relatives have come forward. The program seeks to compensate survivors of California’s eugenic sterilization program which labeled those in prison as genetically tainted and “breeders” of crime.
From 1909 to 1979 state policies held that any citizen considered inept could be sterilized for the better of society. President Theodore Roosevelt, who embraced eugenic ideologies wrote, “I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them… The emphasis should be laid on getting desirable people to breed…”
Despite the repeal of sterilization laws and a lack of enforcement in many states, others, including Texas, Tennessee, and California continued coercive sterilization practices as recently as 2022. For instance, in 2017-2019, White County, Tennessee General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield offered early release to prisoners who agreed to vasectomies or long-term birth control. Kelli Dillon, a former inmate at Central California Women’s Facility, was told she had “abnormal cells” by Dr. James Heinrich, the prison OB/GYN. Heinrich was to check for cancerous fibroids but instead performed the surgery without her knowledge, saying in court documents the surgeries were "cheaper than welfare."
Heinrich reportedly ordered other types of sterilizations 378 times, including “hysterectomies, removal of ovaries, and a procedure called endometrial ablation, which destroys the uterus’s lining.”
Dillon, who lost nearly half her body weight and was spun into early menopause as a result of the hysterectomy, became the subject of the 2020 documentary Belly of the Beast, examining California’s unlawful eugenic practices.
Compensation for survivors of these practices in California spans the period of its inception to the present, with evidence estimating roughly 1,400 prison sterilizations between 1997 and 2013. Survivors who can prove they were wrongfully sterilized will receive $15,000. A second and final payment of $20,000 will be sent to survivors whose applications were approved by October 2024.
“We encourage all those who were involuntarily sterilized to reach out and apply for compensation, and to spread the word to others, who may have been impacted so they can do the same,” CalVCB Executive Officer Lynda Gledhill said in a statement.
Applications, information, and resources are available on the CalVCB website at California Forced or
Involuntary Sterilization Compensation Program or upon request from the Customer Service Unit at 1-800-777-9229.