Federal Court Ends Tennessee's Controversial Inmate Sterilization Program

Enforced sterilization, as well as being unconstitutional, is deemed an international crime against humanity under Article 7 of the 1998 Rome Statute. Rawf8/Shutterstock

Inmates have successfully sued a Tennessee judge who offered time off their sentences in return for undergoing sterilization.

A federal court officially ordered that White County not enforce any sterilizations they had ordered under the program, nor make any sentencing decisions based “in whole or in part upon a defendant’s consent—or refusal to consent—to becoming permanently or temporarily sterilized," in the future.

The highly controversial program saw defendants offered to let inmates out 30 days early if they agreed to have a birth control implant or a vasectomy. Enforced sterilization, as well as being unconstitutional, is deemed an international crime against humanity under Article 7(1)(g) of the 1998 Rome Statute.

The lawsuit was filed against White County General Sessions Court Judge Sam Benningfield and the White County Sheriff’s Office in 2017, and finally came to a close with the federal court's judgment. Under the order, Benningfield and the Sheriff's Office will have to pay the costs of the lawsuit and the plaintiff's fees, which “shall be donated by Plaintiffs’ counsel to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Tuskegee History Center." 

The Tuskegee Center highlights that forced sterilization – essentially eugenics – took place in Nazi Germany, as well as in the United States, where between 1907 and 1939 more than 30,000 people were sterilized, many of them without knowledge or consent whilst in prison.

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“Inmate sterilization is despicable, it is morally indefensible, and it is illegal,” Daniel Horwitz, the constitutional lawyer who represented the inmates, said in a statement strongly condemning the practice.

“Let this historic order serve as a warning: Whether you are a sitting Judge, a Sheriff who is ‘just following orders,’ or any other government official, if you violate the Constitution, you will be held accountable.”

The judge had told CBS News in 2017 that he was "trying to help these folks," saying that sterilization would help them "when they get out of jail to perhaps rehabilitate themselves and not be burdened again with unwanted children and all that comes with that."

"I'm not on a crusade of any sort, I'm trying to help."

Each of the three male plaintiffs in the case were given 30 days off their sentences without having to undergo the vasectomies ordered by White County. However, during the program, Horwitz told Vice News, several dozen women were given birth control implants, though none of the vasectomies ordered were carried out.

The program is now ended, thanks to Horwitz's work, which he did pro-bono and at great personal risk.

"True fact," Horwitz wrote on Twitter. "I took out a $300,000 insurance policy right before filing this case because I sued the judge in his individual capacity and there was a very real chance—like, 90% chance—that it was not going to turn out this way."

[H/T: Vice News]

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