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Federal Lawsuit Filed Over Widely Condemned White County Inmate Birth Control Program

Posted by Steve Karimi | Aug 28, 2017 | 0 Comments

In July, various news outlets began reporting on a particularly outrageous order that was enacted by a Tennessee Judge. According to the Washington Post, “[u]nder a standing order issued by General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, inmates in White County, Tenn., can receive 30 days credit for their jail time if they volunteer for vasectomies or contraceptive implants.” Though the story broke in late July, the order at issue was actually enacted several months earlier in May. The Post reported that a number of inmates had already taken advantage of the program including thirty-two women and thirty-eight men.

Judge Benningfield stated that “he had issued his order in hopes of breaking a ‘vicious cycle' of drug offenders passing through his courtroom who could not find jobs or afford child support.” The Judge was quoted as saying, “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 . . . This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves.” While News Channel 5, who broke the story, claimed the Judge “decided to implement the program after speaking with officials at the Tennessee Department of Health,” the Washington Post reported that a spokeswoman for the department disputed this claim, stating that neither the Tennessee Department of Health or the White County Health Department were involved in the policy and that the departments didn't support such a policy.

Unsurprisingly, the order drew heavy criticism from a wide range of sources including the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the county District Attorney Bryant Dunaway. Benningfield rescinded his order a week after the story made national headlines.

The matter is not over yet, however. According to Courthouse News Service, a federal lawsuit was recently filed by a former inmate who is contending that the White County Sheriff Oddie Shoupe “tricked her into a birth-control procedure by falsely promising reduced jail time.” The plaintiff, Christel Ward, is seeking “punitive damages for claims of due process violations, negligence, and infliction of emotional distress. She also wants a judge to declare the birth-control program unconstitutional and order the sheriff's department to remove [her implant] from her arm for free.”

In her complaint, Ward claims that she was encouraged to participate in the sentence reduction program by Deputy Donna Daniels, but after undergoing the procedure and getting a birth control implant, Ward alleges that she was not given the promised reduction in jail time. The reason she was given for not receiving the reduced sentence was that “[s]he wasn't qualified for the reduction because she wasn't serving a sentence from the General Sessions Court.” Ward claims she was not told this before she underwent the procedure. When Ward realized that she wouldn't get any sentence reduction, she demanded the implant be removed but was told she would have to pay $250 in order to have it taken out.

Interestingly, the lawsuit claims that Ward was given her implant before Benningfield's order was handed down and alleges "Shoupe met with Judge Benningfield and the Tennessee Department of Health about Shoupe's program and asked Benningfield to issue the subject order while also requesting the Department of Health to participate in his program." This lawsuit, then, seems to imply that the idea for the program originated with Sheriff Shoupe as opposed to Judge Benningfield.

Along with Sheriff Shoupe, Deputy Daniels, White County, and Judge Benningfield are also named as defendants in the case.

About the Author

Steve Karimi

Steve Karimi attended Pepperdine University School of Law. After graduation he worked as a prosecutor in Seattle where he gained valuable insight to the criminal justice system. Attorney Karimi uses his experiences as a prosecutor everyday only now he fights for the justice of those accused.

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