Women as Plastic Bags

Jane Roberts

On April 14, 2009 on Frontline World at PBS a young man in the Swat valley of Pakistan was interviewed. He compared women to plastic bags, either to throw away or to be kept in the home. Wonderful!

On April 14, 2009 on Frontline World at PBS a young man in the Swat
valley of Pakistan was interviewed. He compared women to plastic bags,
either to throw away or to be kept in the home. Wonderful!

The United Nations Population Fund is present and very accepted in Pakistan. Every little bit helps. www.34millionfriends.org

Investigations LGBTQ

Brewing Hatred: Coors Beer Company Markets to Women, Latinos, LGBTQ Communities as Coors Family Attacks Their Rights

Zoe Greenberg & Brie Shea

As women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to target these groups. But the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations.

In a Coors beer ad released in 2011, two men dance suggestively behind the familiar script of the Coors Light logo. One of them, wearing a pink button-down shirt, holds his beer can aloft with one hand and his dancing partner’s thigh with the other. A small blue box near the bottom corner boasts that Coors was named by the Human Rights Campaign as one of the best places to work for LGBT Equality. In the center of the page, above the dancing men, Coors boldly proclaims: “Out Is Refreshing.”

Coors Light is the second most popular beer in the United States, bringing in more than $2.3 billion of the $101.5 billion beer market in 2014, according to the market research firm IRI. The Coors family is one of America’s oldest and largest beer dynasties, and the brewing companies that still bear their name—MillerCoors and Molson Coors—rake in billions each year. (Coors merged with Molson, a popular Canadian brewing company, in 2005, and the two companies created a joint venture called MillerCoors in 2008.) Molson Coors had $4.15 billion in net sales in 2014 alone.

To maintain that success, Coors has recently developed product lines and ad campaigns designed to cater to three key increasingly profitable markets—women, the LGBTQ community, and Latinos. As these groups gain political and consumer power, Coors and its competitors have scrambled to transform beer, once a blue-collar, bro-identified product, into a multicultural cash cow.

But a new Rewire investigation shows that although the Coors marketing messages and company policies have changed, the family behind the company continues to pump millions of dollars into powerful anti-choice, anti-immigrant groups, financing efforts that are directly hostile to the diverse customer base the Coors companies are trying to win over.

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Coors Foundational Giving 2009-2014

Conservative groups to which the Coors foundations have contributed at least $50,000 between 2009 and 2014.

Blue denotes anti-immigrant organizations

Red denotes anti-choice organizations

Green denotes anti-LGBT and anti-choice organizations

Orange denotes anti-immigrant and anti-choice organizations

* Individual contributions from Jeffrey Coors and John Coors, not family foundations

Organization Total

Independence Institute

$2,768,403

American Enterprise Institute

$900,000

Heritage Foundation

$800,000

Institute for Justice

$540,000

Pacific Legal Foundation

$510,000

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

$380,000

Cato Institute

$375,000

Donors Trust

$372,000

Philanthropy Roundtable

$360,000

Mountain States Legal Foundation

$355,000

Ethics and Public Policy Center

$335,000

Leadership Institute

$335,000

Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies

$270,000

ALEC

$240,000

Institute for American Values

$200,000

Independent Women’s Forum

$190,000

State Policy Network

$185,000

Landmark Legal Foundation

$170,000

Reason Foundation

$150,000

Texas Public Policy Foundation

$150,000

Barry Goldwater Institute

$160,000

Property & Environment Research Center

$140,000

Intercollegiate Studies Institute

$130,000

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CO)

$120,000

Southeastern Legal Foundation

$110,000

Americans for Prosperity Foundation

$100,000

James Madison Institute

$100,000

Media Research Center

$100,000

Competitive Enterprise Institute

$90,000

Young America’s Foundation

$90,000

American Studies Center

$80,000

Prometheus Institute

$80,000

Institute for Energy Research

$75,000

Heartland Institute

$70,000

Center for American Values

$65,000

National Center for Public Policy Research

$60,000

Cascade Policy Institute

$55,000

National Catholic Bioethics Center

$55,000

Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives

$50,000

Women Speak Out PAC (SBA List)

* $50,000

Center for Equal Opportunity

$50,000

Foundation for Government Accountability

$50,000

Independent Institute

$50,000

National Center for Policy Analysis

$50,000

The Coors family foundations have contributed at least $12.5 million to conservative organizations in the past six years alone, making the Coors one of the most formidable right-wing donor families on the national stage today.

Much of the family’s money is channeled through two private foundations: the Adolph Coors Foundation (founded in 1975) and the Castle Rock Foundation, which merged with the Adolph Coors Foundation in 2011. The foundations gave approximately $36.8 million total in grants in the past six years, meaning their conservative spending made up at least a third of their overall giving.

According to Kellie McElhaney, founding director of the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the public messaging from the Coors companies is in clear conflict with the private giving of the Coors family members.

“If the company is truly investing in women and minorities, which is going to cost the company money as an investment strategy, and the [Adolph Coors] Foundation is investing in things that appear counter to supporting women and minorities, then that’s a conflict,” she told Rewire. “You can’t invest in women and minorities on the one hand, and do anything that appears to be divesting from women and minorities on the other hand.”

The Coors beer companies and the Coors family say there is no conflict—because they operate separately. The family foundation’s website reads, “The Adolph Coors Foundation is a family foundation and not connected in any way to the brewery.”

And a spokesperson for Molson Coors echoed that message in an email to Rewire.

“We respect the rights of the family members or their foundations to choose their own political affiliations and activities,” the spokesperson said. “However, their contributions are their own and are not connected to the activities of the company. The culture at Molson Coors is based on respect, integrity and diversity.”

Rewire did not receive a response to our questions from MillerCoors, the other major Coors brewery. The Adolph Coors Foundation declined to comment.

Despite this asserted independence, public records show that Coors family members—including those who control the family’s charitable foundations—retain substantial ownership and control of the for-profit companies that carry their name.

Marcel Kahan, a professor of corporate law at NYU Law School, reviewed the most recent Molson Coors proxy filing for Rewire. He estimated that Coors family members and their entities own about 27 million of the total shares outstanding, or approximately 15 to 20 percent of the total votes in the company.

“They clearly are the most powerful single shareholders here,” he told Rewire. “They have significant influence because they are the directors, and they are the largest shareholders.”

In addition to owning large chunks of the Coors companies, Coors family members are involved in both the company and the foundation at leadership levels.

While some family members work at the companies, and others serve on the foundation, Peter H. Coors and William Coors hold senior positions at both. Peter H. Coors is the chairman of the MillerCoors Board, the vice-chairman of the Molson Coors Board, and the president and chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation, according to 2014 tax filings. (A spokesperson for Molson Coors told Rewire that although Peter H. Coors fills these roles on the Adolph Coors Foundation board, John Jackson, a Colorado native and former consultant, actually leads the foundation. Tax filings list Jackson as the executive director/secretary of the foundation.) William Coors sits on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation and is a director emeritus of Molson Coors, a position through which he provides consulting and advisory services, according to a 2015 proxy filing.

Four other Coors family members are on the board of the Adolph Coors Foundation, including Jeffrey Coors, CEO of Graphic Packaging Company, a major supplier of packaging for Molson Coors and MillerCoors.

At least three Coors family members—Christi Coors-Ficeli, Peter J. Coors, and David Coors—are currently employed by the brewing companies. All three are the children of Peter H. Coors (the chairman of the Adolph Coors Foundation) and the siblings of Melissa Coors Osborn, another family foundation member.

These ties undermine the claims that the company and the family are unconnected, said McElhaney, of the Haas Business School.

“There’s no question that optically, the family is very inter-linked with the actual company itself, particularly because it’s a family-owned company,” she said.

A Model Corporate Citizen

Just as the nation’s political parties have been forced to reckon with America’s shifting demographics, the nation’s major beer companies now have to appeal to the same groups if they want to stay profitable.

We and our US joint venture with SABMiller—MillerCoors—have increased our marketing to both women and minorities in recent years because they represent key consumer groups that will help drive the future growth of the beer industry,” Molson Coors spokesperson Colin Wheeler said in an email.

The increasing buying power of Latinos, women, and the LGBTQ community offers potentially major windfalls for beer companies. With nearly 33 million people of legal drinking age, and an estimated $1.5 trillion in buying power in the United States, Latinos represent a market that has until recently been underserved by mainstream brewers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos are a relatively young and growing population; by 2045, they will make up 25 percent of the population of legal drinkers in the country. The preferred adult beverage of the Latino population is beer, as noted in a recent report from the research firm Technomic.

In 2014, the U.S. LGBTQ community’s buying power was an estimated $884 billion and rising, according to Witeck Communications.

Women also have growing purchasing power, controlling $5 to $15 trillion in annual consumer spending in the United States, as reported by Nielsen. But as a group, they currently make up only one-fifth of the beer drinking population around the world.

In light of these numbers, Coors and its competitors have devoted themselves to a straightforward, and exceptionally profitable, goal: Get women, Latinos, and gay people to drink more beer.

The goal has spurred new marketing strategies by the major players in the beer industry. In 2008, one such competitor, Anheuser-Busch, introduced Budweiser Chelada, a version of the “michelada,” a popular Mexican drink that combines beer, tomato juice, lime, and spices. A press release promised, “The beers also pair well with traditional Latino dishes such as ceviche, chicken enchiladas and tamales.”

Coors Ad

The goal of selling more beer to Latinos has spurred new marketing strategies from major players in the industry. (McCann Copenhagen, Noche Latina, Bud Light)

Molson Coors also launched its own special beer lines targeting these new demographics.

In 2011, Molson Coors released a beer in the UK specifically for women, called Animée (French for “lively”). Based on almost three years of research about what women want, the beer was sparkling, pink, and advertised as “bloat resistant.”

Melissa Cole, a beer critic for the Guardian, wrote at the time: “Despite having some pretty pictures of hops on the bottle, if anyone can identify anything even approaching a normal beer flavour in any of these drinks I’ll eat my hat.” The brand was taken off the market 12 months after it was released.

Although that particular strategy failed, the company was undeterred from its fundamental goal of getting more women to drink Coors beer.

“Animée was only one part of our plan to attract more female drinkers to beer, and attracting female drinkers remains a priority to get the category back into growth,” a spokesperson told Marketing Week when the brand was pulled.

Coors’ attempts to win Latino consumers have met with more success. In 2014, MillerCoors released the Coors Light Summer Brew, a citrus-flavored beer specifically targeting Latino drinkers. Coors also started including bilingual packaging on Miller Lite and Coors Light brands and running Spanish-language beer ads.

The company’s efforts have gone well past marketing, to encompass a range of real-world corporate policies and efforts directed at these three key groups. 

Coors extended benefits to same-sex couples long before equal marriage was legal, and supports trans employees wishing to transition, both with medical care and paid time off. MillerCoors is a corporate partner of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, sponsors Pride parades around the country, and was the first national sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, according to its website. Earlier this year MillerCoors chairman Peter H. Coors backed out of an event hosted by an anti-gay organization.

In recognition of the company’s work, the Human Rights Campaign has awarded MillerCoors a “100” rating in their Corporate Equality Index ten years in a row. EDGE Media, a network of LGBTQ publications, called Coors a “model corporate citizen.”

The Coors companies have donated thousands of dollars to Latino community groups, including the Coors Hispanic Employment Network, a nonprofit based in Golden, Colorado that works to “support Hispanics in career development and employment opportunities.” Another program, called “Coors Lite Líderes,” provides grants, networking events, and online resources “to help up-and-coming Latino leaders to go further.” Each year the organization awards a $25,000 grant to a leader and his or her project, which must benefit the Latino community.

The Coors companies have introduced gender-inclusive workplace policies, as well.

In 2009, Molson Coors launched the Violet Initiative, a task force led by senior women in the company to increase the number of women ready to move into leadership positions and to make Molson Coors a desirable place for top-level women in the industry.

According to an annual report, the company introduced “flexible work arrangements” in 2010 to encourage work-life balance. MillerCoors has its own program to cultivate female leaders, including an annual Women’s Development and Networking Summit for women across the beer industry.

In a video, MillerCoors lays out its gender-related goals for the next five years. In 2014, 28 percent of managers were women, it explains; by 2020, the company hopes to have 34 percent of managers be women.

“This is a got-to-do if we’re going to be successful as a corporation now,” Scott Whitley, the president of the company, says in the video. “I think with the strong pipeline of talent we have among our female employees, we have a great opportunity. We’ve got to make sure we’re removing the obstacles and the challenges that might get in the way of people realizing their aspirations.”

“Learn to Speak English”

At the same time as the Coors companies are prioritizing outreach to women and Latinos, the Coors family is funding some of the most influential anti-choice, anti-immigrant organizations in the country.

The family’s support for right-wing causes is longstanding.

In 1973, Joseph Coors helped establish the Heritage Foundation, one of the nation’s most famous right-wing think tanks, which has taken credit for many of George W. Bush’s policies. Around the same time, the Coors family helped establish and fund the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that used anti-gay organizing to build political power for the Christian right.

And the family’s politics were squarely reflected in company policies.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a broad coalition of unions, members of the gay and lesbian community, and immigrant rights activists boycotted the company because of its low wages and discriminatory hiring. Consumers, activists, and the press summarized these practices in a single menacing symbol: the Coors polygraph test.

“Prior to my employment, I was required to submit to a polygraph (lie detector) test,” David Sickler, an organizer of a 1977 brewers strike, said in a sworn affidavit. “Have you had sex with one or more persons?” Sickler recalled being asked. “What kind of sex?”

“I felt degraded, humiliated, and angry at this unwarranted invasion of my privacy,” Sickler said.

Other employees remembered similar questions. “What is your sex preference?” one recalled. “Have you ever done anything with your wife that could be considered immoral?” “Did you have relations with your wife last night?”

Many of the questions danced around one fundamental concern: “Are you a homosexual?”

The polygraph tests, which were used to screen job applicants in a company that had more than 10,000 workers by the time the practice stopped, were deployed to intimidate non-white applicants as well.

In a sworn affidavit from 1977, Frank Abeyta spoke about the multiple polygraph tests he was forced to take as a prospective employee because, he suspected, the company could not believe he had no criminal record as a Chicano man.

“I feel that this whole month of harassment was unnecessary and I was subjected to it because I am a Chicano and they were trying to discourage me from seeking employment with their Company,” he said.

The polygraph tests helped fuel the boycotts. While they raged, the Coors family foundations continued to support religious-right groups like the Institute for American Values, an organization dedicated to the values of heterosexual marriage, thrift, and anti-gambling; the Moral Majority, Jerry Falwell’s conservative Christian organization; and Intercessors for America, a Christian fundamentalist group that focuses on prayer and fasting to end abortion and the “gay agenda,” among other things.

The AFL-CIO boycott ended in the late 1980s, after the company agreed to remove some obstacles to union organizing, but the family’s conservative spending continued, along with generalized pushback from other groups. Throughout the 2000s, the Castle Rock Foundation continued to support political positions that were increasingly opposed to the companies’ public relations messages and internal policies.

According to Allyson Brantley, a PhD student at Yale writing her dissertation on the Coors boycott, the first significant public break between the political stance of the company and the family came in 2004, when Peter H. Coors, then 58, ran for Colorado Senate. As a candidate, Coors opposed abortion without exception, defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and supported Bush’s war in Iraq.

Brantley says that the senate run represents a turning point, because for the first time, the company sought to distance itself publicly from members of the Coors family.

“The company was very explicit about how they were unconnected from Peter Coors and his senate run,” Brantley told Rewire. “Although, the family was always involved in the money of the company and also the operations of it. It was hard to know where one ended and one began.”

Another turning point came in 2009, when the Adolph Coors Foundation appears to have shed any reticence caused by the controversies of prior decades, and began once again to aggressively fund national conservative organizations, according to Rewire’s analysis of tax filings and other public documents.

Since then, the family has become one of the major funders behind some of the right’s marquee battles in the culture wars, including the fight against the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $380,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the nonprofit law firm that masterminded many of the challenges to the Affordable Care Act. That represents around 2 percent of the overall giving to the Becket Fund—one of the nation’s largest right-wing nonprofit groups—during that time, according to Rewire‘s research.

The Becket Fund’s most famous client is Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts supplies store that brought its objections to insurance coverage for contraception to the U.S. Supreme Court last year, and won. The Becket Fund has also represented other religiously affiliated nonprofits, such as Wheaton College, in an effort to eliminate insurance coverage for birth control for employees of religious institutions.

The Coors family, though, did not have just one horse in the anti-birth control race. Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also contributed $335,000 to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a neoconservative group dedicated to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.” The center filed an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case as well, arguing that for-profit corporations can exercise religious freedom, and therefore deny their employees access to birth control.

Molson Coors told Rewire that although the company’s health-care benefits vary by country, most employees have health care that provides birth control benefits and covers abortion.

The Coors family has also contributed thousands to right-wing women’s groups that seek, among other things, to eliminate legal abortion. In 2014, Jeffrey Coors and John Coors each gave $25,000 to Women Speak Out PAC, the super PAC arm of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List. The group’s stated goal is to “reduce and ultimately end abortion.”

Between 2009 and 2014, the family foundations also gave $190,000 to the Independent Women’s Forum, which the New York Times editorial board described as “a right-wing public policy group that provides pseudofeminist support for extreme positions that are in fact dangerous to women.” The IWF sent a spokesperson to testify against gun control laws in the aftermath of the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, claiming “guns make women safer”; opposed the Violence Against Women Act, arguing that it has been a source of “waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer resources”; and defended Rush Limbaugh when he called a college student a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her support of the birth control benefit.

In addition to funding anti-choice political groups, between 2009 and 2014, the Adolph Coors Foundation contributed nearly $120,000 to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), many located in the Coors’ home state of Colorado. CPCs are anti-choice facilities that try to persuade women not to get abortions, often by claiming that abortion causes breast cancer or sterility (it doesn’t). CPCs tend to use deceptive advertising to trick women into thinking they may be able to get an abortion if they make an appointment.

And, as much as Coors marketing spokespeople tout the benefits of bilingual advertising and scholarships for Hispanic students, the Coors family has a very different idea about how to spend the profits reaped from such careful multicultural advertising.

Between 2010 and 2011, the Castle Rock Foundation contributed $50,000 to the Center for Equal Opportunity, a small conservative think tank fiercely opposed to bilingual education. In testimony before the House Judiciary committee, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity said that to achieve assimilation, there are “ten basic principles” to which all Americans must subscribe. They included “learn to speak English”; “don’t have children out of wedlock”; “don’t demand anything because of your race, ethnicity, or sex”; and “don’t hold historical grudges.”

From 2009 to 2014, the Coors family foundations also contributed $800,000 to the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank founded by Joseph Coors, which in recent years has become increasingly hostile to immigration. In 2013, a Heritage senior policy analyst named Dr. Jason Richwine wrote a study that argued against amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Dr. Richwine was subsequently fired when reporters discovered that he had written a dissertation arguing that Hispanic immigrants had I.Q.s that were “substantially lower than that of the white native population,” something he said should be taken into account when drafting immigration policy.

Between 2011 and 2014, the Coors family foundations contributed $60,000 to the National Center for Public Policy Research, another conservative think tank devoted to a white vision of America. In 2012, the group announced the creation of a “Voter Identification Task Force,” to push forward voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters. And between 2009 and 2014, the Coors gave $510,000 to the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has fought against bilingual education and state tuition rates for undocumented students in California.

“California taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the post-secondary education of adult illegal aliens,” the Pacific Legal Foundation wrote in an amicus brief.

The individual family members also have a long track record of contributing to anti-choice politicians, according to federal election commission records. Between 2008 and 2015, they gave at least $57,000 to Mike Coffman, a Colorado congressman who opposes abortion including in cases of rape or incest, and between 2005 and 2015, they gave $50,700 to Scott Tipton, another anti-choice Colorado congressman.

Though the family hasn’t publicly stated which Republican they’ll be supporting in the election season, Peter H. Coors gave $5,000 to the Right to Rise PAC, connected to Jeb Bush, in February. Last month, Bush told the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, “I’m not sure we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

To be sure, not all of the family’s spending has a political bent: Between 2009 and 2014, the Coors foundations gave approximately $19 million to various community organizations, schools, and nonprofits.

But when it comes to supporting groups that undercut the inclusive stance of the Coors companies, the Coors family seems to maintain a position that was most clearly articulated by Peter H. Coors in 2004, when he was asked about Coors’ pro-LGBTQ practices.

That’s “just good business, separate from politics,” he said.

Sharona Coutts contributed to this report. Follow her on twitter: @sharonacoutts

CORRECTION: Due to a copy-editing error, a version of this piece incorrectly noted the location of Newtown. The piece has been updated to correct this.

Analysis Human Rights

Why Are Alameda County Jails Forcing Women to Take Pregnancy Tests?

Susie Cagle

For at least several years, Alameda County sheriffs and medical personnel have routinely conducted pregnancy tests on thousands of prisoners, old and young, fertile and sterile, willing or not. It's a practice that isn't shared by any other jails in California. No one can say for exactly how long Alameda County jails have been forcing arrested women to take pregnancy tests, and no one can really explain why.

For pregnant women in Alameda County jails in the 1980s, the daily realities of life included shackled limbs, denial of prescribed medication, and, in the case of full-term miscarriage, at least one health-care worker who insisted a woman and her baby would be “better off” if the child died. During that time, rates of female incarceration spiked, and a troubled prison system attempted to make do. Women at the jail faced rates of miscarriage 50 times higher than the California average.

In 1986, advocates sued for a litany of offenses. And in 1989, they won. Policies changed. But their attempts at reforming women’s health unexpectedly opened the door for another form of abuse.

For at least several years, Alameda County sheriffs and medical personnel have routinely conducted pregnancy tests on thousands of prisoners, old and young, fertile and sterile, willing or not. It’s a practice that isn’t shared by any other jails in California. No one can say for exactly how long Alameda County jails have been forcing arrested women to take pregnancy tests, and no one can really explain why.

“It’s ironic that they’ve stood the [1989] agreement on its head and are using it as a reason to do something coercive and punitive,” attorney Ellen Barry, who litigated the case and wrote the settlement agreement, told Rewire recently.

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One 26-year-old woman was arrested for a misdemeanor in December 2011 in Oakland while she was menstruating. “Deputies at the Glenn Dyer jail wouldn’t give me a pad, but still made me take a pregnancy test,” she told Rewire.

These unique abuses came to light over the past four years, as large political demonstrations in Oakland saw the mass arrest and detention of protesters and journalists privileged enough to not have experienced Alameda County jails before. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the county for violating women’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.

“This is not a suit that we thought we should have to bring,” said ACLU attorney Elizabeth Gill. “In our view it’s very clearly both unconstitutional and illegal what the sheriff’s office is doing. Mandatory pregnancy testing is a clear invasion of a women’s right to privacy.”

In short, the practice is “crazy,” she said.

Women and the Prison System

The story of Alameda’s mandatory pregnancy tests is really the story of how U.S. prisons have grappled with an influx of young women over the past four decades: with supreme incompetence and intermittent malice.

As the incarcerated population exploded due to mandatory minimum sentencing and the drug war, jails and prisons were suddenly grappling with an influx of women, and an influx of health issues particular to those women. Between 1980 and 2011, the female prison population grew nearly 600 percent.

Still, women remained a relatively small portion of the prison population, making their needs by volume intrinsically less urgent—in 2000, women constituted only 7 percent of the total number of inmates in the United States. In everything from health care and nutrition to labor and housing facilities, women’s care traditionally took a back seat to that of male inmates, even though they faced unique problems inside.

“Women entering correctional facilities are often in very poor health for a number of reasons, including higher rates of poverty, substance abuse, and sexual/physical abuse among this population,” writes Kelly Parker in the Journal of Law and Health.

At any given time, around 2 to 3 percent of all women are pregnant in the United States, but according to Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, an estimated 8 to 10 percent of women who enter prison are pregnant. In Alameda County, more than twice as many pregnant women were admitted into county jails in the 1980s as in previous decades.

These women are not a comparatively large population, but they are a particularly vulnerable one. In some cases, pregnant women who are addicted to drugs have been given longer prison sentences only to ostensibly protect their unborn children.

But prisons did not know what to do with their pregnant women. In 1987, the California Department of Health Services commissioned a study of three of the state’s largest facilities for incarcerated women: the California Rehabilitation Center in San Bernardino county, the California Institution for Women in Riverside County, and the Santa Rita “mega-jail” in Alameda, the fifth largest county jail in the United States. The study found that “in all three facilities, early identification of pregnancy did not routinely occur, health care plans and case management systems for perinatal care did not exist, and prisoner’s prenatal medical records were generally not available at outside contracting hospitals when two women delivered their babies.”

It took a series of lawsuits across the country to effect changes. In 1983, in West v. Manson, women incarcerated and detained at a Connecticut state prison sued for poor treatment and conditions, and won.

So too did incarcerated women in California, in Harris v. McCarthy (1987), and Yeager v. Smith (1987).

In 1986, Vernita Jones, Darlene McKeever, and Patricia Ailsworth—along with unnamed other pregnant women as a part of a class—filed suit against Alameda County and its jail system.

Vernita Jones’ baby had died after she was not allowed to have the methadone that had been prescribed to her by a doctor. “She had entered drug treatment before she was incarcerated and then was precipitously terminated from methadone, detoxed without treatment, and lost the baby at full term,” said Barry.

In 1989, the plaintiffs won, and Barry wrote a long settlement agreement that mandated a new multimillion-dollar women’s health-care facility, and a long list of new rules and guidelines for sheriffs and health-care workers to follow in their treatment of pregnant prisoners. “In the years immediately following the settlement, I believe there was good faith compliance,” she said.

In some ways, Alameda County women were lucky. “Pregnant women incarcerated in correctional facilities that have been the subject of litigation have seen an improvement in the conditions they experience,” Parker wrote. “However, most of these facilities would not have made these changes without the threat of litigation. Thus, those pregnant women incarcerated in facilities that have evaded legal scrutiny may still face conditions not much improved than those endured by Ms. Yeager and others like her.”

The Jones v. Dyer decision and resulting consent decree was a local game-changer, a turning point. It also had consequences that no one could have seen coming.

Whose Policy Is This?

Alameda County sheriffs point to the 1989 settlement agreement in Jones v. Dyer as proof that they’re not only complying with the now long-expired binding consent decree, but that they’re also going above and beyond for women’s health. The agreement, which expired in 1993, delineates a long list of procedures and guidelines meant to protect pregnant women and their fetuses, including specifications as to how pregnancy tests should be made available to all detainees so that pregnant women can access special health care, food, and other rights and services in jail.

“There were no provisions in the settlement agreement that coerced women into having mandatory pregnancy tests—this would have been against the letter and the spirit of the settlement agreement,” said Barry.

Indeed, the agreement also clearly states that those tests are voluntary for all prisoners, and that detainees can choose to opt out: “A prisoner may choose not to have this pregnancy test,” it states.

In 2011, I was arrested while reporting in Oakland, and forced to take one of these pregnancy tests, peeing into a plastic cup in an open cell in front of milling sheriffs who tried to avoid eye contact. I asked them and the health-care worker who took the cup why I had to do this. I got no response.

In an interview several months later, Alameda County sheriffs assured me that this was not their policy. “That’s Corizon’s policy,” they told me, referring to the private health-care company that oversees all medical needs in Alameda County jails. “That’s not us. You should talk to them.”

However, in a 2010 letter sent to the ACLU, Alameda County head sheriff Gregory Ahern writes that “every female prisoner is required to submit to a pregnancy test through urinalysis.”

As prison populations have exploded over the past few decades, so has the prison industry. While private prison facilities have proliferated across many parts of the country, California’s jails have, with some exceptions, remained under public control. But some municipalities have contracted out for specific jail services, including health care.

As attorneys were still hashing out Jones v. Dyer, Alameda County contracted with Prison Health Services in 1988.

“The concern about private health care is that these institutions are basically saying we can do this cheaper, which usually means we can do this at a less quality level,” said Barry. “This issue was highlighted fairly shortly after the settlement was written, and we did have to remind the county a number of times that though they’d privatized, it doesn’t take away their duty to provide constitutionally sufficient medical care.”

Prison Health Services repeatedly violated the settlement by not providing women with prescribed methadone.

“For months and months after they did not get their act together. It was very disruptive and very difficult” to get the company to comply, said Barry.

In 2011, Prison Health Services merged with its largest competitor, Correctional Medical Services, to become the largest company of its kind in the country. Corizon boasts operations in the jails and prisons of at least 29 states, including in three other California counties. The company bills itself as a cost-cutting measure for cash-strapped municipalities that have seen their prison populations skyrocket.

“This has been a very long and a very successful partnership,” said Ahern, the county sheriff, on the occasion of the county’s renewal of Corizon’s contract last February. “Corizon has provided excellent service to our inmate population while saving the County millions of dollars over the length of the contract.”

“Even My Own Bodily Fluids Were Not My Own”

One after another, women held at Alameda County jails told me similar tales of coercion and confusion, regardless of their alleged crime or their personal medical history. (The women all asked to remain anonymous.)

“They made me take one even though I’m infertile, told them so, and even though that could have easily been verified with one phone call. They had a woman cop watch me pee, I think because I had indicated I didn’t want to take a pregnancy test,” one woman told me in a written message.

“They told me it was because ‘Glen Dyer can’t hold women, so all women being held at Glen Dyer need to take a pregnancy test,’ which didn’t make any sense,” wrote another.

“It struck me for the first time when I was forced to pee in the cup, that I really could be coerced to do things that I didn’t want to do, and that it didn’t take much either. I was pretty furious that even my own bodily fluids were not my own,” a third woman wrote in her prison diary, which she shared with me.

When they arrive at the jail, prisoners have a very brief consult with a health-care worker who asks a few basic medical questions. Then they are given the pregnancy test—before they are technically booked into the jail, but are in sheriffs’ custody.

While Alameda County sheriffs claim these tests are meant to protect women’s health, during this limbo period in holding—which can last for more than two days—it is jail policy that detainees are not given access to doctors, nurses, or any other medical care, including their prescribed medications for conditions as serious as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and HIV.

Alameda County and Corizon both declined to answer questions about their specific reproductive health-care policies and pregnancy test practices due to the ACLU’s pending lawsuit.

“Women are provided with a wide range of services, including contraception, as well as obstetrical care if they are pregnant while incarcerated,” Corizon spokesperson Susan Morganstern wrote in an email. “Corizon’s policies are consistent with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the entire program is closely monitored by a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist.”

Though sheriffs previously said that mandatory pregnancy testing was Corizon’s policy, they have changed their story following the ACLU’s suit.

“They are saying different things in different contexts,” said the ACLU’s Gill. “They’ve variously said they’re required to do it or that their health-care contract requires it, which may be the case but is irrelevant.”

Since the suit was filed, sheriffs have repeatedly stated that the policy was a result of a consent decree, though they’ve declined to provide details.

“In the past we’ve gotten sued for not doing pregnancy tests, so it’s one of those,” Alameda County Sergeant Ray Kelly said, sighing.

Of Alameda County’s two jails, only the suburban Santa Rita “mega-jail” is approved to incarcerate female prisoners of any kind, including misdemeanor arrestees who are only held for a few hours.

“Glen Dyer Detention Facility [in Oakland] does not have the facility or space to dedicate to women’s reproductive health,” said Alameda County Captain Colby Staysa. “The decision to not allow female inmates at Glen Dyer Jail included many factors and was not based solely on reproductive health.”

If the policy originated with the county, it clearly violates the Jones v. Dyer settlement agreement, along with prisoners’ constitutional rights. If it originated with Corizon, it’s even more peculiar.

“There’s a strange notion that if these agencies go with privatization, that lessens the culpability of the government entity in situations where there are unconstitutional violations,” said Barry.

“It’s the sheriffs’ contract, and they are responsible for the healthcare of women in their jails. It’s not like the health-care provider could come in and do whatever they want,” said Gill.

It’s not clear why Corizon would facilitate costly, unwanted medical procedures on unwilling women, but the company has good reason to try to protect itself from potential liabilities. In its short history, the company has fought and settled several hundred lawsuits, with allegations ranging from neglect that resulted in a broken finger, to abuse that resulted in wrongful death.

But when I asked Sergeant Ray Kelly about the county’s contract with Corizon, he was confident: “Inmates get the same level of care that you or I would, probably better in some cases.”

The ACLU’s case is set to go to trial this fall in state court. The suit seeks to maintain pregnancy testing in the jails, but on a voluntary, not mandatory, basis, with a clear opportunity for women to opt out if they choose. The suit also seeks to have a court declare that the mandatory pregnancy testing clearly violates the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches.

“The fix to this is very simple: You don’t force a pregnancy test on every women who’s arrested,” said Gill.

But as long as pregnant women are incarcerated, Alameda County and other jails will attempt to strike a balance between delivering minimally acceptable care while protecting themselves from possible liability.

“Basically what we would like to see is not really any pregnant women in Santa Rita or any other jail,” said Carol Strickman, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “I don’t think jails and prisons are very good at providing adequate medical care, and it’s a vulnerable time for people. The bottom line is resources.”

But there’s one quick and simple way that Alameda County could cut its health-care budget right now: Stop forcing women to pee in those cups.