Last July, the Center for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of inmates were illegally sterilized in California prisons. Now, a follow-up investigation attributes many of those procedures to one doctor, who remained employed by the prisons for years, despite evidence that he routinely deceived patients and created unsanitary medical conditions.
Ignoring his long history of malpractice, Valley State hired Dr. James Heinrich to treat its inmates in 2006. In the six years he was employed by the facility, the doctor sanctioned 50 tubal ligations, or tube-tying procedures, without the consent of a supervisory committee. On several other occasions, he recommended sterilization procedures unrelated to inmates’ medical inquires.
Disregarding federal regulations, Heinrich also sustained an unhealthy environment in which he interacted with patients. For instance, he consumed foods such as “popcorn, cheese, and crackers” during examinations, thereby creating potentially infectious conditions for inmates. It was also his habit to wear one glove when working with patients, a practice frowned upon by other health care professionals. While the law does not stipulate that two must be worn, doctors are required to wear gloves when they interact with “blood, other potentially infectious materials, nonintact skin and mucus membranes,” and sanitize their hands upon finishing a procedure – a rule that Heinrich also ignored.
After prescribing the wrong prenatal medication in one woman’s case, and refraining from conducting a prenatal examination for bacteria in another’s, Heinrich ultimately contributed to the deaths of two babies during childbirth.
Due to inadequate health care throughout California’s prison system, UC San Diego employees were hired by the government in 2007 to remove medical staff who failed to meet the desired “standards” of medical care. Even after alarming discoveries, Heinrich was not terminated from his position, and continued working at the facility as both a government employee and privately contracted practitioner through 2012.
This is not the first report of malpractice in California prisons. In a facility specifically designed to host patient-inmates, men were denied showers and forced to sit in their feces as a result of medical neglect. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court went so far as to conclude that medical conditions throughout California’s correctional facilities actually violated inmates’ constitutional rights to “basic sustenance” and “adequate health care.” Inadequate health care is widely attributed to overcrowding in the state’s prison population, as well as limited staffing.
Governor Jerry Brown (D) has repeatedly defied federal orders to decrease California’s prison population by 10,000 people, which would lower the number of inmates to 137.5 percent of the state’s prison capacity. It remains to be seen whether or not he will abide by a new court order, issued by three federal judges on Monday, to meet that objective by February of 2016.