Tennessee Judge Drops Sentence Cuts for Birth Control Procedures

The program faced heavy criticism and questions surrounding ethics and legality from organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

The program faced heavy criticism and questions surrounding ethics and legality from organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

By Christopher Zoukis

After legal and political problems, a Tennessee county judge has ended his controversial program aimed at reducing sentences of local jail inmates with drug addiction problems who volunteered for medical treatments to prevent them from having children.

General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield of White County announced in mid-May that male inmates at the county jail in Sparta who had vasectomies, or female inmates who had birth-control implants, would receive 30-day reductions in their sentences. The procedures were to be provided by the county health department free of charge. Unless surgically reversed, which is not always possible, vasectomies almost always prevent pregnancies; implants of Nexplanon into a woman’s arm typically prevents pregnancy for between three and five years.

As Judge Benningfield explained it, he was not trying to deprive inmates of their procreative abilities, but trying to prevent increases in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), the painful withdrawal suffered by newborns with in-utero exposure to addictive drugs from drug-using mothers.

Saying he saw the program as helping inmates avoid family responsibilities for which they were not ready, and preventing new cases of NAS harming young children, the judge also claims it was the health department which first presented him with the idea of promoting NAS awareness and prevention by offering jail inmates a two-day time served credit for attending educational sessions on the problem of drug-addicted newborns.

Judge Benningfield adds that giving a 30-day credit for vasectomies or birth-control implants was his own idea, but the state health department was aware of it, and had promised to participate. Soon about 70 inmates had applied for the program, and the medical procedures began. And then the trouble really started.

The district attorney responsible for prosecuting criminal charges in White County worried about the program’s legal and ethical status, and declined to be involved in it. And when the program was noted in local media reports, it attracted heavy criticism from a variety of organizations, especially the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Before long, the health department had backed out of the planned program. According to the judge, the health officials “succumbed to the pressure and withdrew” the free services they had promised.

Meanwhile, some state legislators had begun pressing the state attorney general for an opinion on the program’s constitutionality, and civil liberties groups had mobilized for a fight, calling the program coercive and unconstitutional. Under pressure and with no way to deliver the services, Judge Benningfield rescinded the program about 10 weeks after he launched it.

But that may not end the controversy. There has already been one federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a female inmate who accepted the program’s offer. Naming the county sheriff, deputy, the state health department, and Judge Benningfield as defendants, it alleges the inmate applied and was accepted, and got the implant 10 days before the program’s official start.

The complaint says health and law enforcement officials knew she was not eligible for the not-yet-started program, but went ahead anyway, but she did not get the 30-day credit she thought she had earned. What’s more, she still has the implant, she says, since when she asked to have it removed, she was told the removal would cost her $250.

This article first appeared on Blogcritics.com.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.