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“Belly of the Beast”: Survivors of Forced Sterilizations in California’s Prisons Fight for Justice

StorySeptember 22, 2020
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Image Credit: “Belly of the Beast”

Revelations about forced hysterectomies at an ICE facility in Georgia have forced a reckoning with the long history of sterilizations in the U.S. — particularly of Black, Brown, poor and disabled people — and the way this procedure has continued in jails and prisons to the present day. We speak with Kelli Dillon, who was sterilized at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla in 2001 and who is featured in the documentary “Belly of the Beast,” which tells the stories of women subjected to unwanted sterilization behind bars in California. She says incarcerated women are “punished” for simply requesting medical records. “If we begin to press … we are reprimanded and sometimes put in lockdown,” says Dillon, who in 2006 became the first survivor of sterilization abuse to sue the California Department of Corrections for damages. Between 2006 and 2010, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 women without required state approval. “Forced sterilization is genocide,” notes filmmaker Erika Cohn, who directed “Belly of the Beast” and spent nearly a decade making it. The film opens in theaters on October 16 and will premiere on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on November 23.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The horrific exposure of forced hysterectomies at an ICE jail in Georgia has forced a reckoning with the U.S.’s long history of sterilizations — particularly of Black, Brown, poor and disabled people — and the way this procedure has continued in jails and prisons to the present day.

We’ll go now to California, where a new documentary is bringing one of these disturbing stories to light. In 2001, Kelli Dillon was sterilized at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. The mother of two in her early twenties was told she was going into surgery for ovarian cysts. She later learned she had been given a hysterectomy.

Dillon was not alone. According to a report from Reveal at The Center for Investigative Reporting, between 2006 and ’10, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 women without required state approval. Prison staff reportedly targeted and coerced women who they thought were likely to return to prison. Up to a hundred more may have undergone the same treatment as far back as 1997. The revelations were a chilling reminder of the 20th century eugenics program, in which 32 states, including California, forcibly sterilized people — many poor, disabled and people of color — for decades.

In 2006, Kelli Dillon became the first survivor of sterilization abuse to sue the California Department of Corrections for damages. Belly of the Beast tells her story and chronicles her fight to hold the state of California accountable. This is the film’s trailer.

COREY JOHNSON: There is a culture of secrecy in California.

SURVIVOR 1: I have some fear. What kind of repercussions will I get for coming on and talking about this?

KELLI DILLON: I always been a fighter. But it wasn’t truly birthed until I was in prison.

SURVIVOR 2: They did a pelvic exam.

SURVIVOR 3: He said I had a fibroid.

SURVIVOR 4: I was told that I had cancer cells.

KELLI DILLON: When I came out, I felt like something was wrong.

ROBIN LEVI: We were getting hundreds of letters about medical abuses every month.

INTERVIEWER: When was the first time a doctor told you that you may be missing your ovaries?

KELLI DILLON: No one ever told me that.

I have been intentionally sterilized, and I have been lied to.

CYNTHIA CHANDLER: The law prohibits sterilizing people in prison for the purpose of birth control. But they were doing it anyway.

COREY JOHNSON: One of the challenges with this story is you ultimately have to get to intent. And then that’s when the doctor said, “Well, that’s cheaper than welfare.”

KELLI DILLON: I was looking at these documents, that was confirming, as a Black woman, my life wasn’t [bleep].

PROTESTERS: No more abuse! No more abuse! No more abuse! No more abuse!

KELLI DILLON: I was very much intimidated by whom I was going up against.

CYNTHIA CHANDLER: The state has admitted that they have done these illegal surgeries, but we don’t actually know who they did them on.

UNIDENTIFIED: Inmates become numbers. They don’t get names. And that’s what makes it easy to abuse them.

SEN. HANNAH-BETH JACKSON: Women in California being coercively sterilized is absolutely revolting.

KELLI DILLON: We have yet to get an apology. We have yet to be acknowledged. The state has to be made accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Belly of the Beast. We’re joined now by Kelli Dillon herself, whose fight against the California Department of Corrections is the subject of Belly of the Beast, also the founder of community empowerment organization Back to Basics in Los Angeles. And in Salt Lake City, Utah, we’re joined by the film’s director, Erika Cohn.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, Kelli, let’s begin with you. Go back to 2006. Again, you became the first survivor of sterilization abuse to sue the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for damages. In 2014, California banned coerced sterilizations, and many people say it’s largely because of what you started in 2006. Take us back to when you were imprisoned and what happened to you.

KELLI DILLON: As I’m sitting here listening to the stories that Dawn Wooten is expressing about some of the detainees in the ICE facility, those stories ring so parallel to my story of what was happening.

I was 19 years old when I was first sent to prison. And at the age of 23, I had some regular, you know, I will say, female issues that I was seeking out the doctor for. And then I was told that I had an abnormal Pap smear and that I would need a cone biopsy to check that out. And so I agreed to it.

And we discussed cancer. Me and the doctor, we discussed that if they found cancer, would I want a hysterectomy? I was young at the time, very much uneducated, didn’t really know the procedures or any other medical options. And I was scared of cancer, like most of us are. And I said, “OK, yes, if you find cancer, then you could perform the hysterectomy.”

But when he went in to do the cone biopsy and to also remove what they say possibly was some cysts, he intentionally cut off the blood supply to my ovaries and then began to perform what was a sterilization on me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kelli, when — how soon afterwards did you realize that something was wrong with what they had done to you? And could you tell us about what it was like to trace back the sequence of events of what they had done to you?

KELLI DILLON: Yes. So, you know, I tell people that, spiritually, of course we feel connected to certain things. And immediately coming out of the surgery, I just felt like, OK — number one, I was scared if I had cancer, but then I just felt different. Just in the days of recovery, it just felt like something wasn’t right. But I didn’t pay it any attention. I just thought maybe it was just my nerves. And when the doctor came in and told me that he didn’t find any cancer, didn’t tell me anything else, you know, I was relieved.

But then, several months after that, I began to experience menopausal symptoms at the age of 24. I had hot flashes, heart palpitations and just different things that was happening to me. And I said, “No, something has to be going on.” And when I began to question or write the staff in the prison to see, well, what happened to me, to get some answers as to what happened in surgery, they began to start giving me the runaround.

So, actually, it took, with the help of an agency called Justice Now and a social activist attorney by the name of Cynthia Chandler, who’s also in the film — it took us about a year or so for us to get my medical records, to actually fight, to write, to almost sue them just for the medical records. And when I finally got them, she was the one who told me, as she read through the medical records, that I had been intentionally sterilized.

And that’s something, you know, that people need to know, is that we don’t have access to that medical information. And it’s withheld, even though to everyone else it just may seem like a privilege to ask for a copy of a procedure that happened to you. But for us, we are withheld that information. And if we begin to press, as you guys discussed in the ICE detention center, we are reprimanded and also sometimes put in lockdown or different situations. We’re punished to go after those medical records.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, and in terms of the — why did you finally decide to come forward and talk about your experience?

KELLI DILLON: Yes. It took a lot of nerve for me to even first sue them for what had happened while still incarcerated. I had received a lot of different threats from the medical staff, the chief medical officer, as well as some of the correctional officers that was in there, about the repercussions that I will face if I continue on in my lawsuit. But the question is, like: What would you do if you found out that something like this would happen to you? And I just felt like I could not allow CDC to continue on.

But the real press of me wanting to seek justice had a lot to do with the fact that I had begun to see other women that was around my age, around childbearing age, of between maybe 24 to 35 years of age, coming back with all of these hysterectomies. And even though we didn’t say that they were “the uterus collector,” like that doctor is coined in Georgia, but I began to see that, well, what is happening, that mostly African American women or women of color come in very healthy, strong, childbearing women, and then all of a sudden we need all of these hysterectomies. And so, for that — the fight wasn’t just for me. The fight was also for my sisters that I had saw that had been wronged, as well. It’s just that I had the privilege of having an actual legal team to assist me in the journey.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip from the new documentary, Belly of the Beast.

SURVIVOR 1: You gave me a hysterectomy for severe cramps.

SURVIVOR 2: They did a pelvic exam.

SURVIVOR 3: He gave me some kind of a test and said I had some — a fibroid.

SURVIVOR 4: I was told that I had cancer cells.

SURVIVOR 5: They told me that I had to have my ovaries removed. I had no choice.

SURVIVOR 4: We actually need to call them the surgeries of the month, because they were happening so frequently. So many people were getting hysterectomies. That was a cure-all. That’s what it was.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s a clip from Belly of the Beast. And we want to bring in the film’s director, Erika Cohn. Erika, through your research, you determined that between 1997 and 2013, over 1,400 sterilizations were performed. Can you talk about this shocking figure and the work you did, the years you’ve spent on this documentary?

ERIKA COHN: Thank you so much for having me.

We calculated that — between California state audit and prison records, that nearly, as you mentioned, 1,400 sterilization procedures occurred between 1997 and 2013. And since 2014, since a bill was passed in California rendering sterilization for the purpose of birth control illegal — which I think it’s important to know it was already illegal, according to state, federal and international law — California is required to report the number of sterilization procedures performed each year, and prove medical necessity around each procedure. And, you know, one of the ways that California was able to find a loophole around these procedures previously was because they were able to classify them as medically necessary, when we know, in many instances, these procedures actually were not medically necessary. And so, I believe that accountability, holding our institutions accountable, is the only way that we can prevent future abuses like these from happening.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Erika Cohn, of course, these situations happening in the last 20 years, there’s actually a much longer history of this. For instance, it’s been well documented that in Puerto Rico in the late 1940s and 1950s, there was a systemic sterilization of women of childbearing age. Estimates about one-third of all women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico were sterilized during that period, again, as a family planning or birth control system without any kind of explanation to the women of what was actually happening. Informed consent didn’t come until the 1970s or '80s as a requirement. So there's been a long history in this country of this type of oppression of women, hasn’t there?

ERIKA COHN: Absolutely, yes. Forced sterilization is genocide. And the legacy of forced sterilization in the United States is deeply rooted in white supremacy. And my actual connection to the story comes from that eugenics history.

You know, I was first introduced to Cynthia Chandler in 2010, the attorney who’s featured in the film, through a mutual friend. And I was really inspired by her work at Justice Now, specifically the Let Our Families Have a Future campaign, which really exposed the multiple ways that prisons destroy the basic human rights of family, one of the most heinous being the illegal sterilizations primarily targeting women of color. And as a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City 25 years ago, the phrase “Never again” was always profoundly in the back of my mind. And when I learned there was a different kind of genocide happening through imprisonment, through forced sterilization behind bars, I knew that I wanted to get involved. And initially it was by becoming a volunteer with Justice Now, and later becoming a volunteer legal advocate working with over 150 people who were incarcerated in California’s women’s prisons.

And as you see in the film and as you’re talking about, that history of eugenics in the United States is not something that we talk about a lot. When we hear the word “eugenics,” we think of Nazi Germany. We think of the Holocaust. But, actually, what we don’t talk about is the founding of the eugenics movement in the United States and actually how Nazi Germany came to California to learn from our eugenics leaders to take our policies and practices back.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to —

ERIKA COHN: And so, historic —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there but do Part 2 and have a continued conversation with you. I do want to give Kelli the last word. You have 10 seconds. What would justice look like for you?

KELLI DILLON: So, right now we have a petition that’s on www.BellyOfTheBeastFilm.org — I mean dotcom, excuse me — and what we’re trying to do is seek compensation, in order to — all the survivors to not only be identified, but to be notified, because there’s a lot of hidden victims. And so, we’re looking for compensation for not only the survivors, but for the ones that are unknown, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelli Dillon, thanks so much for being with us. As well, thank you to Erika Cohn, director of Belly of the Beast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much.

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