Incarceration Nation

Fighting for Reproductive Justice and Self-Determination in Post-Roe America

By Jen James and Tamanika Ferguson

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has been shocking to people across the U.S. who have witnessed the reversal of a fundamental constitutional protection. This decision comes at a time when California (CA) is grappling with its own recent history of forced sterilizations, an example of reproductive oppression inflicted by the state prisons system. In 2021, after decades of activism led by currently and formerly incarcerated women, survivors won the right to apply for reparations from the state for this harm and the first survivors have been granted approval for compensation this summer. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision raises several questions: First, what will this decision mean for people incarcerated in women’s prisons? Even in CA, a state with the right to abortion written into the state constitution, many reproductive health decisions for incarcerated people are available based only on the gatekeeping of prison healthcare staff who impose their own beliefs on incarcerated people regardless of what the law says.

Second, how will the expanded criminalization of women’s bodies and healthcare lead to increased imprisonment and lack of bodily control for women, trans and non-binary people? Across the country, pregnant and birthing people continue to be shackled during pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Chelsea Becker, a woman from King’s County California, spent 16 months in jail after enduring the trauma of a stillbirth. There is growing fear that this will become the norm; her case is a clear example of the limits of reproductive rights in CA.

Policing and regulating women’s bodies is a form of control and punishment used to strip women of their agency and self-determination and to silence their voices. For many people, the overturning of Roe v. Wade is one of the first times they have been confronted with this possibility; yet, for people incarcerated in women’s prisons, who are predominantly Black and other women of color, it is an everyday reality. Reproductive oppression has been a constant in the lives of many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) dating back to slavery when reproduction was controlled for the economic gain of white slave owners.

Once incarcerated, people are denied the same rights as those on the outside. Sexual and medical violence in prison is not about isolated cases, but rather is systematic oppression where prison staff has unfettered power over imprisoned people. Both physical abuse from correctional staff and forced or coercive medical care, including the sterilizations that were performed on hundreds—or even thousands—of people incarcerated in CCWF (Central California Women’s Facility), CIW (California Institution for Women), and VSPW (Valley State Prison for Women) without proper informed consent, are crimes that usually remain hidden from the public eye.

Reporting or speaking out about sexual and medical violence are often met with retaliation. Yet incarcerated survivors continue to lead efforts to expose the forced sterilizations occurring inside CA prisons. They continue to sound the alarm about violence and abuse faced inside on a daily basis.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade means that thousands of people may face criminal charges for seeking an abortion, having a miscarriage or stillbirth, or assisting a patient or loved one in seeking necessary healthcare. CCWP (California Coalition for Women Prisoners)1 is committed to engaging in participatory defense, policy work, and political education and action to support the rights of all people to bodily autonomy and self-determination. Prison abolition must include the fight for reproductive justice for all.