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Between 1909 and 1979, 20,000 people—primarily women of color—were forcibly sterilized in California. A part of the growing eugenics movement, compulsory sterilizations were part of a broad campaign aimed at controlling the bodies and determining the futures of women who lived at the deepest margins of society. While in the public imagination the eugenics movement feels as if it’s in the distant past, for women in correctional confinement, it’s a present-day reality that impacts their lives long after their incarceration. In California, home to the largest women’s correctional facility in the world, 148 incarcerated women were sterilized between 2006 and 2010 alone. The discovery of this widespread reproductive health care abuse led to the passage of Senate Bill 1135 in 2014, making forced sterilization illegal in the state. That legislation was the result of years of advocacy on the part of direct legal services organization Justice Now and activist Kelli Dillon, a formerly incarcerated woman and survivor of domestic abuse outside and nonconsensual sterilization inside.

The story of Dillon and the countless other women who experienced forced hysterectomies are the subject of Belly of the Beast, a new documentary produced by Erika Cohn and set for release Monday, Nov. 23 on PBS. As Prism previously reported, the film focuses on the experiences of women incarcerated in California and the fight for public recognition and legislative intervention on their behalf. It also recognizes that this is a problem that extends far beyond just California. In the wake of a chilling investigation from this year about forced hysterectomies at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, it is clear that this is also an issue that continues outside of the American prison system and into immigration detention, serving as yet another key parallel between these two systems of confinement.

Despite the vast nature of nonconsensual sterilization and the lives it has impacted—a number the public may never know—it has remained deeply obscured. Prison, the film reminds us, is “a black hole” where secrecy prevails, creating a veil not just between those inside and the public, but between women and their own medical records, often rendering them unaware of what has been done to them on the operating table. The obscurity of this issue however, can also be attributed to who it impacts. Early in the film, Cynthia Chandler, the co-founder of Justice Now, states how in California it is overwhelmingly women of color—particularly darker skinned women of color—who are most impacted. In a later scene captured at a legislative hearing, Dillon asks, “Did this happen to me because I was African American? Did it happen to me because I was a woman? Did it happen to me because I was an inmate—or did it happen to me because I was all three?” 

The face of who is most impacted has meant that not only do these women face harm and potential retaliation for whistleblowing while inside, but they also become targets of ridicule if they choose to share their story. As the film shows, their stories fall on the ears of a public that is often unsympathetic and chooses to see them as deserving of their pain. If the country is to fully eradicate this centuries-old form of medical abuse, it is incumbent upon not just elected officials, but everyday people to make it so.

Prism’s senior reporter Tina Vasquez spoke to Erika Cohn, Cynthia Chandler, and Kelli Dillon to discuss how the film came about, the organizing work that it captures, and their message for other women who have experienced forced sterilization in both the U.S. prison system as well as immigration detention.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Prism: Erika, I’d like to start with you. How did Kelli Dillon and this larger story about sterilization in California prisons first get on your radar?

Erika Cohn: I was first introduced to Cynthia Chandler in 2010 and I was really inspired by the organization she co-founded called Justice Now. They had a campaign that showed how prisons destroy the human rights of families, including illegal sterilizations targeting women of color. What was happening in California prisons screamed eugenics to me. As a Jewish woman, the phrase “never again” was always profoundly in my mind and what was happening to women in prisons was so clearly genocide taking shape in the form of forced sterilizations. I decided to get involved; I became a volunteer legal advocate and that’s how Belly of the Beast was eventually born.

Originally, the idea was to chronicle the human rights documentation work happening inside the prison and how the information was funneled out through an underground network of activists who sent information to allied organizations like Justice Now. But all of that changed when I met Kelli Dillon. At the time, she was working in Los Angeles as a community interventionist focused on domestic violence and she was moving on with her life after the sterilization abuse she experienced. She was a behind-the-scenes adviser on the film in the initial stages and then in 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting released its explosive reporting about forced sterilizations and it created tremendous momentum with the potential for legislation ending the practice. That’s when Kelli was called back in to this movement to testify for the bill, and that was when Kelli and I decided to start filming together. The more we filmed, the more it became clear we needed to center her story. Kelli’s discoveries really catalyzed the investigation of illegal sterilizations and without her advocacy, none of this would have happened.  

Prism: Kelli, I want to talk to you about the organizing work that you did inside Central California Women’s Facility. After reaching out to Justice Now, you essentially started to survey other women incarcerated at the facility to find out how widespread forced sterilizations were. I can’t imagine the risks of organizing within the same facility that enacted state violence against you.

Kelli Dillon: There were risk factors even before I began organizing. I was writing inmate complaint forms and with that I received a lot of retaliation and intimidation tactics, especially as I pursued my own justice and tried to figure out what happened to me. That process opened my eyes to see other women on this assembly line that ushered them into having these surgeries. These were young, strong women who had beautiful children and all of a sudden they were told they had all of these reproductive issues.

Maybe if this just happened to me, I would have acted differently, but when I saw that other women were victims who were lied to and misdiagnosed and operated on, I got really pissed off. I had to push past my own fears and my own concerns. It became bigger than me. I was appalled by the audacity of the system thinking it gets to make the decision of who is worthy of reproduction and who isn’t. That’s when I started organizing and I created a survey to give to anyone I saw who might have had a surgery or other medical complaint. I had to sneak around to do all of this because if I was found out, I would have been written up, thrown in the hole, or isolated and lost my communication privileges, which means I wouldn’t have been able to talk to my family or Cynthia. So, I took a lot of chances.

Prism: Belly of the Beast is airing on PBS just weeks after news broke that a Georgia doctor named Mahendra Aminsterilized and performed unnecessary gynecological operations on immigrant women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), a story Prism covered extensively. We know that prisons created the blueprint for reproductive violence in immigrant detention, so I wanted to ask you, Cynthia, how regularly reproductive injustices showed up in complaints made by incarcerated women that Justice Now worked with.

Cynthia Chandler: Most fundamentally, the way this has come up over and over again in conversations over the last 25 years is that imprisonment itself functions as reproductive injustice because it destroys reproductive capacity. Not only does it fragment families and rip women away from their children, it also removes people from their communities and their partners, especially as people—and women of color in particular—are subjected to longer and longer sentences. This functions as a way of isolating people and denying them the opportunity to reproduce consensually.

When I read the reports coming out of the detention center, it was spectacularly startling but not surprising. The stories and allegations were verbatim from the reports I heard 20 years ago in California women’s prisons.

Dillon: I couldn’t believe how similar it was. The women in detention said verbatim what I say in the film. I couldn’t believe it, and it really kind of expanded my understanding of this systematic government agenda. This isn’t just a California thing. This isn’t just a prison thing. They are sterilizing women everywhere. I know when people think of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention, they think of Latinos and Latinx people, but they don’t understand you’re also talking about Haitian immigrants, Jamaican immigrants. It’s women of color, period. My heart goes out to the immigrant women who experienced this because in some ways, I feel like their battle will be worse because they are not citizens. I was just reading about how women with relevant cases are being shipped off, deported so they don’t get justice. I can’t even imagine the betrayal they must feel coming to a country that says it’s a beacon for liberty and justice; it’s a place where you can have a better life and have the American dream, but you come here and you are cut off from your family and robbed of the ability to have children.

Prism: The similarities are really disturbing. Just like the women in Belly of the Beast, the immigrant women who were sterilized at ICDC sometimes didn’t immediately know they were sterilized.

Chandler: Kelli was one of about a dozen people I had the misfortune of telling they were sterilized without their knowledge. Once we started talking about these cases publicly and meeting with legislators, a whistleblower, much like [ICDC whistleblower] Dawn Wooten, came forward and told me about a meeting held by the California Department of Corrections in which they discussed the cost efficacy of sterilization. I remember getting the minutes of the meeting and everyone at Justice Now gathering around to look at the documents and try to figure out how the language would be coded or buried in the document. We didn’t think there was any way it would be as blatant as using the word “sterilization,” but it was. “Sterilization” was literally used as a heading front and center in the document. There was no awareness of how this was illegal; there was no regard for the severity of the abuse they were embarking on. What was really upsetting to me was that at this meeting, there were advocacy organizations working on prison reform, there were feminists in California legislative circles, and yet only one person came forward as a whistleblower. This committee tasked with improving conditions in women’s prisons settled on eugenics as a reasonable option.

Prism: What I really appreciated about Belly of the Beast is that it’s not ahistorical. Without giving too much away, the film delves into our country’s history of eugenics and connects Kelli’s experience to California’s decades-long eugenics campaign, which included the sterilization of Mexican women in Los Angeles in the 1970s.

Cohn: If we look at these events as isolated incidents, it’s shocking. If we look at these events with historical precedence and context, we understand that forced sterilization is genocide and it’s a legacy rooted in white supremacy. I think for a lot of people, when they think of eugenics, they think of the Holocaust. When I began doing research for this film, I learned that the eugenics movement gained traction here in the United States first and that the Nazi party used California’s eugenics campaign as a model. This idea that the State will create a master race by controlling who lives and dies, who is allowed to reproduce and who isn’t, is the basis of our prison system. Our prison system destroys the basic human rights of families and destroys the legacies of families. For me, it’s important to look at racial justice through the lens of eugenics and genocide. This is why on the film’s website, we have a petition people can sign demanding reparations for the survivors of California’s forced sterilizations. It’s a step toward accountability and making amends, following in the footsteps of states like North Carolina. It’s not enough to acknowledge the history or apologize and then quickly shove it under the rug. In 2003, when California Gov. Gray Davis apologized for California’s heinous eugenics history, women were still being forcefully sterilized in California’s prison system.

Prism: Dr. James Heinrich is featured prominently in Belly of the Beast. He was the OB-GYN at California’s Valley State Prison from 2005-2012 who was using taxing payer dollars to sterilize incarcerated women, making the argument that it was “cheaper than welfare.” But as the recent sterilizations in Georgia show us, this isn’t just about one doctor or one facility or one agency.

Chandler: It’s never one individual. The sterilizations in California that we were able to document—nearly 1,400 between 1997 and 2013—took place over nine different medical facilities, including two teaching hospitals in California. I believe that it’s because of the specific vulnerability of people who are caged and deemed “the other” that this abuse is perpetuated and continues unchecked and even normalized. More than that, white supremacy is at the root of all of our institutions in the United States, that includes the institution of our families and who is given the right to have a family; who gets to choose how and when they have families. Sterilization abuse is so much bigger than one doctor at one facility because this abuse is an extension of our eugenics history. 

Attorney Cynthia Chandler and activist and survivor Kelli Dillon were instrumental to the passage of a California law banning the sterilization of incarcerated people without their consent.

Prism: Kelli, there is a powerful moment in the film where you are grappling with whether you want to share your story as part of the push for the California law banning nonconsensual sterilizations in prisons. You explain that you are often asked to share your story, but then left alone to process the trauma associated with sharing it. I’m in touch with survivors who were operated on in Georgia, women who publicly shared their stories and are now struggling with mental health issues alone. What advice would you share with them, for their own-self preservation and for their own healing? 

Dillon: When I met Erika 10 years ago, I was already in a place of feeling exploited by the storytelling I was doing, not just in reproductive justice circles, but in domestic violence and anti-prison circles. When I was asked to film, it wasn’t that I was worried about documenting my everyday life; it’s that I knew the exposure would bring responses and questions I found really hurtful and harmful. Some of that is shown in Belly of the Beast, the horrible things people said in the media and on social media about those of us who were sterilized.

I say that to explain that your story is yours and yours alone, and you don’t have to share it. What I want to say to the women in Georgia is that they faced a tragedy and healing will not come overnight. Healing will be an everyday process because something was stolen from us. For those of us who want to have children, we were robbed of being a mother; we were robbed of our reproductive right and that makes us feel diminished. I wasn’t able to produce another child, but I have produced my talent and my heart. I have helped other women, I have supported other children. I couldn’t be a mother to more children, but I am a mother to my community and they can be too, if that’s what they want. I want to tell them there is life after this. The heart of a mother can never be stolen and life will always find a way to go on. I promise you that.  

Belly of the Beast premieres on Independent Lens on PBS on Monday, Nov. 23 at 10 PM ET (check local listings).

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is a contributing writer at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.