Until 1979, California was the epicentre of the eugenics movement and was responsible for a third of all sterilisations that took place in America in the 20th century.
Yet its legacy cast a long and dark shadow.
In the mid-2000s, Crystal Nguyen was an inmate at Valley State, one of three California prisons implicated in the sterilisation scandal, and was assigned a job in the infirmary.
She logged appointments and did general administrative work. Over the years, she became accustomed to overhearing conversations between doctors, nurses, and inmates. To her, it seemed like women were being given hysterectomies “left and right”.
“I would see inmates being taken out to the hospital to have this performed and then being brought back and in pain. It didn’t seem consensual,” she tells The Telegraph.
One prison doctor was linked to hundreds of illegal sterilisations. It’s alleged he referred the women for the operations, though didn’t perform them himself.
He allegedly told Moonlight why she was sterilised: “‘I’m tired of you pretty Mexican girls, you pretty Native girls, and pretty Black women,’ he said. ‘You come in here, you go home, and you get pregnant. Then you come back to prison, and we taxpayers are forced to take care of your children’.”
‘I feel robbed’
The distrust driven by medical mistreatment has had catastrophic consequences on the health of marginalised people. Black communities in America exhibit lower Covid vaccination rates, are less likely to attend regular primary care checkups compared to their white counterparts, and face higher mortality rates from chronic diseases.
“Based on the way Black Americans have been treated in the past in health care, it is understandable and justifiable not to see health care systems, organisations, and doctors as trustworthy, and as having ulterior motives, such as for-profit and status,” explained Laura Bogart PhD, a Senior Behavioural Scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think-tank.
To this day, no one has been prosecuted for the medical abuse of hundreds – if not thousands – of women in California prisons.
A fund has now been set up to compensate victims, managed by the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB), a government agency. The deadline to apply was December 31, 2023, and those who are successful will receive $35,000 from the state.
Cynthia Chandler, a human rights lawyer and advocate for sterilisation victims, says the state has made it extremely difficult for victims to apply.
“It is acting more like an insurer guarding the state’s money than like a body that should be involved in contrition and atonement in a reparations plan,” she tells The Telegraph.