By Jessica Lussenhop- BBC News, Tennessee
In a small county in rural Tennessee, inmates were offered 30 days off their sentences in exchange for a vasectomy or a long-acting birth control implant. County officials say it was a tool in the fight against opiate abuse – opponents call it eugenics.
This spring, Deonna Tollison found herself in Judge Sam Benningfield’s courtroom in Sparta, Tennessee – a large, neon-lit room filled with wooden pews for the public. Tollison was accused of violating the conditions of her house arrest, the latest issue in a lifetime of trouble, which at its worst saw her living in her car, addicted to opiates.
On the stand, Tollison testified she’d been trying to get her life on the right track – she was off the drugs and raising her two youngest daughters, as well as the daughter of a sister who died in a car wreck. Relapses and run-ins with the law, however, kept stalling her progress, and here she was again, accused of making unsanctioned trips to the grocery store and allowing the batteries on her ankle monitor to die.
She faced the possibility of another stay in the local jail.
“I’m a single mother of three beautiful girls and a brand new grandson. My mother is disabled. My sister is disabled,” Tollison pleaded on the stand. “Each and every one of them depend on me because I’m the only one with a [driver’s] license. I love my family very dearly…the last four years I’ve done everything in my power to get my life back.”
The hearing did not go well for Tollison. Judge Benningfield ruled that her continued missteps and her lack of employment made her unfit for home arrest. He ordered her to serve out the rest of her sentence in the county jail.
Shortly afterward, Benningfield made a surprising announcement to the entire courtroom: a new programme would allow inmates like Tollison to shave time off her sentence – 30 days – if she agreed to sign up for a free long-lasting form of birth control. For the male inmates, Benningfield’s new order would offer free vasectomies.
Not long after Tollison arrived to the jail, sign-up sheets started going around to have an implant called Nexplanon inserted, which prevents pregnancy for up to four years. Tollison signed up, along with at least 30 other women. Over on the men’s side, 38 men signed up for vasectomies. With an average daily population of 221 inmates, that represented a sizeable portion of the jail.
Tollison first had to attend a neonatal health class which focused on the effects of drug abuse during pregnancy can have on foetuses. Then, a nurse used a special, needle-like device to puncture her upper left arm, and slide the matchstick-sized vinyl implant under the skin. The male inmates were scheduled for appointments with a local urologist.
About two months later, after the local media caught wind of the programme, tiny Sparta, Tennessee, became the subject of national and international interest.
“The unspeakable evil of the Tennessee eugenics program,” one headline read.
“Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is an outrage,” opined one blogger. “He need not serve on the bench any longer, and he need not keep his law degree any longer.”
The US has a long history of forced sterilisations on the poor, the mentally ill, and on minorities. In surprisingly recent history, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and African Americans have faced sterilisation by force or under deceptive practices by members of US state and local governments.
Though the US eugenics movement – which was admired by Adolf Hitler and replicated by the Nazis – reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1920s, states forced sterilisations into the 1980s.
At one time or another, thirty-two states had a federally funded sterilisation programme in their prisons or asylums. Gay men were compelled into sterilisation if mental institutions deemed them to be “sexual deviants”, as were mothers receiving welfare. In some places, sterilisation was a condition of release from prison.
Individual cases continue to crop up around the country. In 2014, the governor of California signed a ban on sterilisation in prisons, after dozens of women underwent tubal ligations while behind bars, without giving the proper consent.
Officials in Tennessee argued no-one was forced. All of the inmates signed up, and the programme was cancelled before any of the men could receive their vasectomies.
But questions of whether or not an inmate can make informed consent to such a procedure if it is in exchange for a lesser sentence could be the crux of the forthcoming federal lawsuits over what occurred in White County.
“It doesn’t meet the bar for autonomous decision-making. You have built into it a hierarchical relationship,” says Alexandra Minna Stern, a historian at the University of Michigan and author of Eugenic Nation.
“You can say people made a choice but that’s why sterilisations are not allowed in federal prisons – the asymmetry of the relationship.”
The arguments could lead all the way to the US Supreme Court, where the 1927 decision approving the forced sterilisation of “mental defectives” is still on the books, and has been cited in cases as recently as 2001.
Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles, a book on the 1927 Buck v Bell case, stopped short of calling the judge in Tennessee an eugenicist, but said the programme itself comes dangerously close.
“It may be that this judge really thinks he’s doing something helpful,” says Cohen. “That said, I am sure that a lot of people who do support eugenics like what he is doing.”
When Tollison made the decision to get the implant, she wasn’t thinking about her reproductive health, or the health of any prospective children. She was thinking about the little house on a winding road in the rural countryside of White County, Tennessee, filled with ailing family members and her three young daughters.
Seated on the cement patio behind that house, the yard around her busy with with butterflies and winged ants, Tollison says her only reason for getting the implant was so she could go home. Even though she is free, it is a decision she now regrets.
“I feel like we were guinea pigs,” she says. “People will do anything to get out of there.”
Sparta sits in the bull’s-eye of circular-shaped White County, a bucolic part of central Tennessee populated by cattle farmers and factory workers. Over 90% of the population is white, with a politically conservative, church-going majority.
“Salt of the earth kind of people,” says Brandon Griffin, a local defence lawyer with two former clients who got an implant. “They’re not necessarily the most fond of outsiders getting involved in their stuff as a general rule.”
The local newspaper publishes every White County arrestees’ mugshot in the paper on Thursdays, and around town it’s not difficult to find supporters of Judge Benningfield, who took the bench in 1998 and has won re-election twice.
Christopher Sapp, the owner of a computer repair shop in Sparta, said he lost his wife to an opiate addiction. A woman he considers a daughter to him is currently behind bars in White County over drugs. He heard she opted into Benningfield’s programme and got the implant.
“I thought that was pretty responsible of her,” says Sapp. “[Opiate addiction] is terrible in this area. There’s not a family in this area that hasn’t been touched by it in some way.”
Down the street from Sapp’s computer shop, Mike Gilbert, the owner of a local antiques store disagrees slightly. He doesn’t approve of inmates getting an early release or government getting involved in reproductive rights.
“I think a lot of times the judges in this world, they go overboard with things,” he says. “They step above what they’re supposed to be doing.”
In his office one morning before court began, Sam Benningfield expressed bafflement by the amount of attention and condemnation he’s received.
“It was a real, total surprise to me,” he says. “No-one lifted even an eyebrow until cameras got stuck in their face.”
The people who end up in Benningfield’s courtroom are there for misdemeanour crimes – everything from drug possession and driving while intoxicated, to thefts of under $1,000 or failing to pay child support.
The maximum sentence he can hand down is 11 months and 29 days.
According to Benningfield, the programme began when the state health department approached him about a two-day class on effects of drug use on foetuses. To entice inmate participation, anyone who signed up received two days off of his or her sentence.
(A spokeswoman for the department of health said its employees had partnered with White County for the classes, but denied involvement in developing any policy. The department declined to comment when asked if their employees administered the implants).
Believing that the next logical step would be to incentivise inmates to get reproductive services, Benningfield says he decided to write the order. He compared it to getting time off for picking up litter on the side of the highway, or agreeing to become a confidential informant for law enforcement.
“It occurred to me that many of the same women I had incarcerated were the very same from whom I was having to remove their children in my role as the juvenile judge because they were born addicted to drugs,” he wrote in a statement.
When the story began blowing up, Benningfield says he was shocked by the thought that an inmate would have a vasectomy for the sole purpose to get 30 days off a jail sentence.
He drafted a new document for the inmates to sign certifying they were not signing up solely for the reduced sentence.
But by then the condemnation had grown to include the ACLU of Tennessee, other local judges, the district attorney and state legislators.
Six weeks in, the judge cancelled the order altogether. According to county officials, none of the vasectomies took place.
He insists that his intent was not to control who is reproducing in White County, but to prevent babies being born sick.
“My number one concern was about children,” he says. “To me a lot of controversy got started when everybody used the word sterilisation. Because it was never about that – it was never forced.”
At one point, he crossed over to his desk and picked up a small stack of letters he received about the programme, “all but one positive”.
“You are my hero!” wrote one person. “We need more freebie contraception in this country. Help these poor kids get on the right track. Most of all saving these unwanted babies.”
“Rest assured that the majority of White Countians appreciate your effort but many are forced to wear a gag – ironic isn’t it, we are the oppressed?” wrote another.
And another: “Your very considerate practice of offering a reduced sentence to criminals is brilliant and ahead of its time. Criminals are the last people on earth that should be multiplying.”
Kristi Seibers has neither children nor a long rap sheet of drugs charges. When she went to the White County jail in February on a probation violation, it was the first time she’d been locked up.
She usually got a free shot of Depo-Provera at the county health department every six months as her means of birth control, but when she heard she could go home a month early if she got the implant, she jumped at the opportunity.
The side effects, she said, started almost immediately. A two month-long period. A vaginal infection. Cramping and weight gain. And Seibers said she never got her 30-day credit.
“The only reason I did it was they promised me days off so I could go home,” she said. “I don’t think it’s right.”
Of the six inmates BBC News spoke to who signed up for the programme, only one expressed some interest in the potential health and family planning benefits of the free services – in her case, to help with her endometriosis, a painful uterine condition that can cause infertility.
The rest said their only concern was getting out as soon as possible. The facility is on the brink of being decertified by the state for its chronic overcrowding, and multiple people described it as a dirty and unpleasant place.
“Voluntary consent is no consent at all if it’s tainted with coercion from the government,” said Mario Williams, a civil rights lawyer for the former inmates. “You’re really preying on vulnerable people.”
David Stoll signed up to have a vasectomy, but ultimately decided against it. He believed that “99%” of the men he spoke to in the jail were motivated only by the time off their sentences.
“I don’t want to say play God but they was trying to control something that wasn’t none of their business really,” said Stoll.
Three women told BBC News that they wanted their implants removed, but were told either they had to wait 60 days or that removal would cost $250. There were other problems, including women too old to get pregnant signing up. Judge Benningfield confirmed that he heard one account of an inmate who’d had a hysterectomy getting the implant.
Inmates also signed up for services even if they had no history of drug abuse, which Williams says proves the county was interested in preventing former inmates from procreating, not just protecting babies from neonatal conditions.
Seibers was also not the only former inmate to say she did not receive her reduced sentence.
Lawyers for former inmate Christel Ward wrote she also was not given her 30-day credit because her case originated in criminal court, not Judge Benningfield’s general sessions court. Regardless of the fact Ward and Seibers were ineligible for early release, the lawsuit alleges, the programme – which the complaint calls out as “eugenics” – was offered anyway.
In front of the Nashville federal courthouse building on Thursday, Williams and Ward appeared for a short press conference.
“We’re not going to stop until a judge declares this unconstitutional,” Williams said.
He said he currently represents 16 former inmates, and that the total number could double.
There is a twist to Ward’s lawsuit – she showed BBC News a copy of a wallet-sized card she said was given to the inmates after the Nexplanon implant was inserted, showing the date of insertion: 5 May, a full ten days before Judge Benningfield’s order dated the 15th of May.
It isn’t clear if county employees were running some type of ad hoc version of the programme before the judge’s order, and if so, for how long.
The suit claims that White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe, not Judge Benningfield, is the true creator of the programme, and that Benningfield created his order at Shoupe’s request.
Sheriff Shoupe did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The judge declined to comment further after the lawsuit was filed.
Ward’s case is just the first in what lawyer Williams said will be a string of lawsuits against the county, including those who were “punished” by not signing up for birth control.
Williams argued that bringing down the legal hammer on White County is the only way to prevent a slippery-slope effect where the programme expands to other jails and prisons.
“People just have a negative perception of incarcerated people, regardless of the reason. ‘These are bad people for society – who cares about these people?'” says Williams. “With all the racial tension going on in the country, those are real thoughts in people. If you don’t kill it as soon as it raises its head, then it just festers and grows into something much larger.”
Seibers wants her implant out as soon as possible, though it’s not clear how she’ll pay for it. As soon as she does, she should theoretically be able to have children, barring other medical issues.
Since coming home, the 30-year-old got a job as a home healthcare worker, and was able to again help her boyfriend make the rent on their home and pay bills.
But she feels different – she said her sex drive is gone. Her relationship with her boyfriend has suffered. She feels tricked by the county.
“I’m just depressed,” she said. “I don’t want nothing to do with my old man.”
Still, she holds hope the media spotlight on “little bitty” White County will bring about changes to the way the inmates are treated.
“I got high hopes that it will. I feel like it’s going to be something big,” she said. “I think things will be done differently after this.”