What We’re Watching“Belly of the Beast” Uncloaks a Vile Prison Practice

headshot of “Belly of the Beast” director Erika Cohn, a white woman with dark brown wavy hair and light eyes, wearing a leather jacket and hoop earrings, smiling in front of a brown textured background

Courtesy of Erika Cohn

Legacy issue cover featuring Nailah Howze, a Black woman styled with a sculptural, braided hairdo, wearing a pleated gold top, adorned with a sparkling headpiece and nail decor
This article was published in Legacy Issue #90 | Spring 2021

When Kelli Dillon was 24 and incarcerated in Central California Women’s Facility, she began experiencing unusual abdominal pain. It was 2000, and, following a policy that is still in place today, the prison sent Dillon to its resident gynecologist for an examination. The gynecologist suspected that Dillon had cancer, so he referred her for a biopsy and asked her if she was interested in having a hysterectomy. Dillon said yes, but only if cancer was actually present. The surgery was successful: There wasn’t any cancer, and the surgeon removed some cysts from her uterus. But the surgery didn’t alleviate Dillon’s symptoms: For nine months, she experienced all of the symptoms associated with surgical menopause, including losing a large amount of weight, having hot flashes, and developing a panic disorder. It would take months, but Dillon eventually contacted Cynthia Chandler, an attorney and cofounder of Justice Now, to help her secure her medical records and figure out what was happening with her body. 

That’s when Dillon discovered that she’d been sterilized—without her knowledge or consent. Across the United States, incarcerated people are experiencing similar medical malpractice as a continuation of the country’s legal eugenics policies from the ’40s and ’50s. People with wombs are being sterilized—given partial and full hysterectomies—for routine reproductive concerns ranging from severe cramps and fibroids to simple abdominal pain. As Chandler says in Erika Cohn’s documentary, Belly of the Beast, “Inmates become numbers. That’s why it’s so easy to abuse them.” Belly of the Beast, which is available to stream at BellyOfTheBeastFilm.com, chronicles this plague and how it can be stopped.

What first sparked your interest in creating this documentary?

In 2010, mutual friends introduced me to Chandler. I was really inspired by her compassionate release work. She was the first attorney in California to get someone out on compassionate release. [I was] also very inspired by Justice Now, the organization she cofounded, which had this really revolutionary way of working. [It’s] still the only organization in the country that has board members who are currently incarcerated and are informing policy and strategy for staff in the free world. Justice Now’s “Let Our Families Have a Future” campaign exposed the multiple ways prisons destroy the basic fundamental human rights of families, including the heinous [practice of] sterilizing [primarily] women of color. 

That really seemed like eugenics to me. As a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, the phrase “never again” was always in the back of my mind. When I learned about this different kind of genocide happening during imprisonment, I knew I wanted to get involved. Initially, I was a volunteer at Justice Now. I later became a legal advocate providing direct service needs for more than 150 people inside California’s women’s prisons. From there, I began collaborating with people inside on a project that would ultimately become Belly of the Beast. The idea was to chronicle the incredible human rights documentation work happening inside prison, and how it was funneled out through this amazing network of advocates because the prison didn’t want these issues to be exposed. [That idea] started morphing and changing when I met Kelli [Dillon] a couple of years into the process. I had edited some campaign videos [that featured] her and had heard about her incredible activism. She was [the] spark that began the investigation [into] these illegal sterilizations. Had it not been for Dillon, there would be no film. There would be no Center for Investigative Reporting. There wouldn’t be this focus on uncovering the sterilization and abuse campaign. 

When I met Dillon, she was working as a community interventionist, doing domestic violence intervention and gang intervention in Los Angeles. At that point, she wasn’t interested in talking about what happened to her. That changed when the Center for Investigative Reporting launched their controversial investigation into the tubal ligations that happened between 2006 and 2010 [during] labor and delivery. When Corey Johnson’s reporting came out, suddenly there was this huge focus, national conversation, and potential for legislation to address the illegal sterilizations. That’s the moment that called Dillon back into the movement. She was asked to testify on behalf of so many other people who couldn’t. That was also the moment that Dillon and I both decided we would start filming her experience leading up to testifying [before the California State Legislature]. The more we filmed, the [clearer it] became that the film really needed to center around her story. 

How did you approach putting this documentary together? I imagine it’s difficult to get women who have been incarcerated to open up about sterilization. How did you build trust for them to feel comfortable enough to honestly open up to tell their stories?

[They trusted me] for a couple of reasons: I was deeply embedded in the movement itself. [I was] doing the human rights documentation work and collaborating with people inside on this project. From the very beginning, the directive was always to center folks in the storytelling who had been directly impacted. Our approach was almost directed: We were really advised by folks whose stories were being told. In some cases, it took many times to tell a story. In some cases, people’s stories weren’t recorded until the very end of the film. It was a process that was held with such sensitivity, such care, and the advice of those of whose stories were being told.

You interweave each person’s individual experience with the broader social problem you’re chronicling. How did you create the documentary’s narrative arc?

It was a very intensive edit. This is a character-driven film, but [we had to] include the historical precedence. Being able to contextualize what’s going on is important so that people aren’t continuously shocked when they hear about these incidents. When we look at [sterilizations] against the backdrop of historical precedence, it provides us with an opportunity to understand the real legacy of forced sterilizations in this country and how deeply rooted it is in white supremacy. Without accountability, these human-rights abuses will continue to occur, like with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Georgia

So, it was this really intricate dance of always rooting the film within Dillon’s story and her relationship with Chandler, providing the journalistic backdrop and historical context, and meeting other survivors. The film opens with the metaphorical drive to prison. There are these very expansive aerials, and we slowly narrow the focus of the lens until we’re in the interior of the prison and ultimately in an interior cell. That’s the process of really understanding the contrast between confinement, freedom, and being able to travel with Dillon to prison. Then we pulled back the layers of the onion to really understand what happened to Dillon as she understood what happened to her—not just saying she was sterilized at the [beginning] of the film. Throughout the film, we learn pieces—a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more—and at the end, we’re left [knowing] the work is not done. We collaborated with Mary J. Blige [on a song] at the end of the film to provide this feeling of inspiration and anger. Anger can move our audiences into supporting a reparations movement, paying tribute to the survivors and the work that they’ve done, and carrying the work forward.

Belly of the Beast includes a lot of history about sterilization and eugenics in the United States and abroad, particularly in Nazi Germany. Population and welfare policies have continued eugenics. How did you piece this incredibly important history together?

When I started working on this film, I didn’t know that German Nazis came to California to learn about [the state’s eugenics] policies. I was like, What? That was really important [to capture] because we think about [Nazi Germany] when we think about eugenics. Eugenics has resurfaced in the last 10 years. When I started this project 10 years ago, people didn’t use the term “eugenics” a lot. It wasn’t [a common] part of people’s language. When people did hear that term, they thought of Nazi Germany, but weren’t able to examine the United States’s role in the eugenics movement and how the eugenics movement gained traction in the United States prior to the Holocaust. There’s not a lot of conversation in the United States about our eugenics history, specifically in California. That state sterilized one-third of all of the people who were sterilized during the historical eugenics program. A lot of people don’t know that throughout the 20th century more than 30 states passed eugenics laws, some of which remained on the books into the ’70s and even the ’80s. We’re coming up on the 100th anniversary of the infamous 1927 Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case, which [allowed] compulsory sterilizations for those deemed unfit by society. That decision has never been overturned. 

These conversations were really important to lay the backdrop of why these abuses continue to happen. There’s actually a petition for reparations for California’s forced sterilization survivors. That’s really important because it continues to make amends with the historical sterilizations, but also to ensure accountability for modern day instances of forced sterilizations like [those] in the ICE detention center in Georgia. When we think about what would ensure these procedures don’t continue to happen, it all centers about accountability. [Former] California governor [Gray Davis] apologized for the state’s eugenics past in 2003, and yet these procedures were still secretly going on in California’s women’s prisons. So, an apology is not enough. Knowledge of this happening is not enough. We have to take it one step further and demand accountability.

a production still from “Belly of the Beast” featuring Kelli Dillon, a Black woman with short hair and wearing a blue blazer, as she testifies, while sitting next to another Black femme with an afro, wearing a denim button up and black vest

A production still from Belly of the Beast featuring Kelli Dillon (right) testifying. (Courtesy of Belly of the Beast)

What does accountability look like in the California prison system as well as in the prison system at large?

Because of the levels of secrecy and privacy these institutions are able to hide behind, it’s incredibly difficult to uncover abuses of power and state-sponsored violence. We see how retaliatory these environments [can be]: [Take] the case of Dawn Wooten, the courageous whistleblower who came forward about the mass hysterectomies in the [Georgia] ICE detention center. These institutions are set up for these abuses to happen. We’ve asked so many people “What does justice look like for you?” In addition to an apology, which is very important, reparations [are essential to an accountability process]. Though no amount of money will be able to address the harm that was done, [money is] how we address harm done in our society. That level of accountability will ensure these procedures don’t happen again. It’s also really important that we hold state actors in those institutions responsible for the harms they’ve committed. In so many cases, like Dillon’s, people go in for a procedure and are [also] sterilized. They’re asked to sign consent forms [before] going into labor and delivery, and to this day, they don’t know they were sterilized. [Reparations should include] notifying people who were sterilized.

“Women were signing consent forms” seems to be the State of California’s argument for why these procedures are acceptable. Is it possible for people who are incarcerated, medicated, and under duress to give consent?

It’s an interesting conversation. People can consent in prison, but is it informed consent? In determining [informed consent], there was already a sunshine bill, meaning [the state legislature] was highlighting the illegality of a law already in effect. This was not a new bill. This was not a new law. [Sterilizing incarcerated people] was already illegal. Justice Now sent surveys breaking down every part of the bill [ending sterilizations] and asking people whether they agreed or disagreed with the bill. [We knew] the bill could potentially make any medical procedure more difficult to access. The majority of the people the survey went out to said [sterilizations shouldn’t] occur in prison because [incarcerated people] don’t have the ability to Google things like people in the free world can. They don’t have the ability to get a second opinion. They don’t have the ability to walk away from a medical provider because there’s only one. 

In an ideal world, we would be able to imagine a safe, compassionate world without prisons, but that’s not the case right now. The question of consent and informed consent is a challenging one; it’s really important not to take away someone’s autonomy in prison. So, we really want to focus on the informed part of consent. I believe the informed part of it is not possible because of the coercive environment, their daily existence is threatened by force, and there’s a lack of access to resources.

People can consent in prison, but is it informed consent?

What, if anything, can we do to protect incarcerated women from being subjected to such gross medical malpractice?

It comes down to accountability: [It’s important to] amplify [the voices of] those who are incarcerated, center conversations about prison reform, and really [highlight] their experiences. And the reparations movement is a part of that. It says, “We’re listening. This is not acceptable. Those who have committed these harms will be held accountable.”

What is the legacy of coerced sterilization in the United States?

Forced sterilization is genocide, and the legacy of forced sterilization is deeply rooted in white supremacy. In examining the future of forced sterilizations, we’re on the precipice of creating change, and at the precipice of a reckoning. We’re at a place where we can create lasting change, but we have to face our eugenics history in order to prevent a new genocide from occuring.

This story has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.