A Tennessee Prison Is Making a Birth Control Deal with Prisoners

July 20th 2017

Katelyn Harrop

A Tennessee county is offering reduced jail time in exchange for a vasectomy or birth control implant, leading some critics worry that the act may violate inmate rights.

Under a standing order signed on May 15, inmates in White County, Tennessee can reduce their jail sentence by 30 days in exchange for undergoing a sterilization procedure. Woman are offered Nexplanon—an in-arm, four-year birth control implant—and men must undergo a vasectomy.

The birth control measures are free of charge through the Tennessee Department of Health. So far, 32 women and 38 men have opted into the program since it launched, according to county officials.

The judge who signed the standing order told Nashville-based News Channel 5 that the program was designed to break the cycle of exacerbated poverty and recidivism that may be worsened with the stress and expenses involved with a growing family.

“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,” General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield told News Channel 5. “This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.”

"I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not be burdened with children."

But critics of the plan argue that a program is hardly “voluntary” when freedom is at stake.

“The suggestion that the sheriff and law enforcement are offering this false choice to jail detainees as an option to shorten their jail sentence is unfair and reinforces a power balance between law enforcement and incarcerated people,” Nicole Porter, Director of Advocacy at the Sentencing Project told ATTN:. “The focus around reducing jail space is a valid approach for law enforcement to take, but the focus should be around preventing crime, preventing people from being admitted… not taking away people’s liberties”

"...The focus should be around preventing crime, preventing people from being admitted...not taking away people's liberties."

White County Jail isn’t the institution to use birth control as a bargaining tool.

A Virginia man agreed to a vasectomy in exchange for reduced jail time in a case regarding child endangerment in 2014. And in a controversial case in Tennessee, a woman was required to undergo an invasive sterilization procedure in order to avoid 15 years of jail time in a child neglect case. The prosecutor in this case was fired in 2015 after an Associated Press report revealed that he had included female sterilization in plea deals in at least four cases over a five year period.

In more extreme cases, castration has been required in release negotiations for convicted sex offenders in states including California, Texas, and Oregon, despite concern that the practice violates eighth amendment protections from cruel and unusual punishment.

Critics maintain that any negotiation involving individual body choice and freedom automatically creates an unfair power balance.

“Offering a so-called ‘choice’ between jail time and coerced contraception or sterilization is unconstitutional,” ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said in reference to the White County policy. “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.”