Tennessee offers inmates shorter sentences if they submit to sterilization
Andrew Selsky/AP

WHITE COUNTY, Tenn. – A controversial new program, implemented for prison inmates, is raising questions. The policy, which has only been in place since May, offers to 30 days off  a sentence if the inmate submits to vasectomy or implantation of a birth control device.

So far 38 male inmates and 32 female inmates have agreed to the procedures. Since the story broke, many have  voiced concern with the unusual bargaining chip, and have called the voluntary program unethical and racist.

Judge Sam Benningfield, who signed a standing order for the program, said in a statement responding to the outrage “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

The procedures, themselves, are free and conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health. Women inmates receive a Nexplanon implant in their arm, which provides up to three years of continuous birth control. The implant, however, has also has been linked to a number of side effects, including depression, back pain, and liver disease. The male inmates that signed up for the same program would undergo a much more permanent procedure; opting to sign up for a vasectomy in exchange for their a reduced sentence.

People have are expressing shock over sterilization in exchange for shorter sentences. The Executive Director of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Hedy Weinberg,  responded to the news, calling the arrangement “unconstitutional.” Weinberg also emphasized that such a choice “violates the fundamental constitutional right to reproductive autonomy and bodily integrity by interfering with the intimate decision of whether and when to have a child, imposing an intrusive medical procedure on individuals who are not in a position to reject it.”

While disturbing, these policies are far from the first of their kind. Eugenic programs have been systematically implemented countless of times in the history of the U.S. against those who were deemed a ‘liability’ to society, mostly under “legal” means. According to scientific records, more than a third of women in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were sterilized from the 1930s to the 1970s as a result of a partnership between the U.S. government, Puerto Rican lawmakers and medical officials.

This historical pattern falls in line with the trajectory of medical experimentation that often targeted mostly poor, mentally ill people of color. Numbers show that Black and Latinx individuals make up a majority of prison population numbers, and consequently also are likely to make up a large percentage of the people who ‘volunteer’ for these sterilization procedures in Tennessee prisons. It raises valid concerns about the reasoning behind approving such an unusual method. Nevertheless, the program continues and the inmates are faced with the decision that could have long term impact on their reproductive rights.


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.