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New Film Links Forced Sterilization in California Prisons to Horrific History of Eugenics in U.S.

Web ExclusiveSeptember 22, 2020
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We continue to look at 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, and filmmaker Erika Cohn. 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, as we continue with our discussion about forced sterilization. The horrific exposure of forced hysterectomies at an ICE jail in Georgia has forced a reckoning with the U.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 present day.

We now bring you Part 2 of our look at a new documentary that’s 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 in for surgery for ovarian cysts. She later learned she had been given a hysterectomy. In 2006, Kelli became the first survivor of sterilization abuse to sue the California Department of Corrections, the CDC, for damages. Belly of the Beast tells her story and chronicles her fight to hold the state of California accountable.

We welcome back Kelli Dillon, as well as Erika Cohn, who is the director of Belly of the Beast. Erika, in Part 1 of our discussion, Kelli told her story of going in for an operation, being told if they found cancer, would she consent to a hysterectomy. She did. They didn’t find cancer, but they gave her a hysterectomy and did not even tell her. She only realized months later, when she was experiencing, in her twenties, early menopause. But, Erika, you look, in Belly of the Beast, at the whole history of the eugenics movement in this country. You found that well over a thousand women were sterilized in California’s jails over — well, what period of time? And then go back and even explain what the word “eugenics” means.

ERIKA COHN: Yes, we do. I thought it was very important to contextualize that this is not an isolated incident, just like we’re seeing in the news with the sterilizations in the ICE facilities. These are not isolated incidents. There is a legacy of forced sterilization.

And, you know, when we think of the word “eugenics,” it’s an ideology or a social movement that is based upon improving the “human race” and society by encouraging reproduction of certain populations that have, quote, “desirable” traits, you know, or discouraging reproduction of certain populations that have, quote, “undesirable” qualities. Essentially, the state is trying to create a master race by controlling who gets to live and who gets to die. And, you know, Nazi Germany actually came to California to learn about California’s eugenics policies.

Between 1909 and 1979, California sterilized 20,000 people through its eugenics program. And over 30 states had laws, eugenics laws, on the books that allowed for compulsory sterilization. We’re actually coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the infamous 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which upheld a statute instituting compulsory sterilization of people who were deemed “unfit” for the protection and the health of the state, which really set a precedent for states to legally sterilize people in prisons. And so, while state, federal and international law explicitly ban compulsory sterilization, the decision has yet to be overturned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Erika, the period of time that you’re dealing with is recent, the past two decades. And the governors in California during this time were Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, two liberal Democrats and one moderate Republican. Were you able to sense whether the highest levels of government in California were even aware of what was going on?

ERIKA COHN: That’s a really good question, because in 2003 there was a state apology for the heinous history of eugenics in the state of California. And yet, meanwhile, these sterilizations were going on.

And as we heard earlier by Dawn Wooten, this is not — you know, this is not necessarily about one individual doctor. This is about an entire system. And when we contextualize against the history of forced sterilization in this country, it’s very clear that it’s not one isolated incident.

You know, I have spent the past decade examining human rights abuses, including forced sterilization in California’s women’s prisons, as both a volunteer legal advocate and as a filmmaker, and have experienced the tremendous levels of security and privacy these institutions hide behind, which makes it incredibly difficult to uncover the abuses of power and state-sponsored violence. And so, I really believe we need accountability for these eugenics practices immediately, justice for the survivors and also safeguards to prevent future abuses.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelli Dillon, can you talk about the psychological effects of what happened to you? A young woman, a mom of two, you were imprisoned. They sterilized you. It was you who figured it out; they didn’t tell you this. And what that has meant? You sued. You won in 2014, for so many women, for this to stop in California. But what has it meant for you personally?

KELLI DILLON: Amy, I really thank you for that question, because not too many people ask me that. But going back a little bit, psychologically, what it meant for me is that, as Erika said, the system of things. Number one, I was incarcerated for — at the age of 19 for defending myself from my abuser, and which, at the time, systematically, people didn’t really understand what domestic violence was. And so, as a woman going into — being incarcerated for, number one, defending yourself from your abuser, and then becoming revictimized while incarcerated, it really did something to what I felt the value of my life was. I did not feel that my life had any value.

And then, after finally getting the courage, getting the strength to come up against CDCR, to sue them for what they had done to me and, you know, to also make sure that we set a precedence for what they were doing to my fellow sisters that was incarcerated, as well, I lost that case, in which they said that my statute of limitations had ran out, and that, therefore, I didn’t deserve any compensation for what they had acknowledged that had happened to me, but yet, still, due to a technicality, had denied me any justice. So, those continual messages had begun to really tear down at me to where I began to face depression. I was also — I had a lot of anxiety, panic attacks, a feeling that my life was just not worth anything.

But it was in the fight. It was in the fight, it was in the continual trying to seek justice and, like you say, bring California state to accountability, is what kind of put the fire back into me that, no, I’m not going to just allow this to happen. I’m not going to let them win this time. And so, but it has been a journey to actually gain this empowerment, to gain the strength to come to you right now to even have this conversation with you right now. It has been a journey.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Kelli, your lawyer in this case, Cynthia Chandler, has long believed that the senior officials in the corrections system of California were aware that —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — people under them were conducting sterilizations specifically for birth control purposes. Could you talk about that and what she’s uncovered in that vein?

KELLI DILLON: Yes. So, in the bill, that initial bill, when we were going for — to stop the continued unlawful and coercive sterilization, there was an official that was appointed over the investigation of how women, or just people in prison — but how medical practices and procedures were done in prison. And so, although they were made aware of what was happening at the time, they still did not do anything. In 2017, Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Senator Durbin, they all visited Central California Women’s Facility and found that the medical practices and the treatment of women in that facility was horrible, but yet it still — even after that, it has been continual neglect of medical care.

Going back to, as you say, the balance between COVID-19 and sterilizations, like right now, the women are not receiving adequate medical treatment, as well as they are being denied, as saying that because — they’re blaming me, but they’re telling the other inmates that “Because one of your fellow inmates sued us, we can no longer care for you. We can no longer do these procedures. We can no longer make sure that your medical health. So you can thank your fellow inmate for that.” So, you know, even though they know that that’s not true, because they were incarcerated with me and they understood the struggle, and they actually encouraged me to keep going, but those are some of the things that they are being told right now as to why they’re not receiving medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelli, has the state apologized for what it did to you and so many other women?

KELLI DILLON: No. And this is the reason why I feel like the state hasn’t apologized. We have had three consistent bills to go up to California state legislators to ask for compensation. And in that compensation is for — it’s not just about, like, victims seeking money. A third of that compensation goes back to the state in order to create a committee, that’s under the Public Health Department, that, first of all, has to identify all of the survivors that you just numbered. And the reason why California has not had to do that is because they’re hiding under HIPAA and medical disclosure laws. So, that committee that’s funding will actually go back to identifying survivors and then notifying them that these things have happened.

Now, although a lot of our — the bill has always passed in the Public Safety Committee, but it gets shut down in the California Budget Committee, because that’s where it will actually be implemented at after that. So, we’re seeking — I’ve actually reached out to — I’ve actually reached out to Senator Kamala Harris myself, her offices. I’ve reached out to so many different — Congresswoman Karen Bass, just different people that I know that may be a little bit more compassionate about the situation, and seeing what we can do in order to push this forward, because this will be the third time that this bill has died.

And now what we’re just asking for is compensation. And it’s really not that much. Just to let you know that after the committee — after the funding goes to the committee, then, with the number of survivors, the survivors will only receive around $20,000 to $25,000, which is nothing compared to what we’ve actually lost. But, however, it is what we are willing to accept, based on the fact of California being able to acknowledge and stand in accountability for what they have done.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Erika Cohn, your film is just coming out, Belly of the Beast. What about at a federal level? As you said, it wasn’t the U.S. looking at the eugenics movement of the Nazis. The Nazis came to California, admiring the U.S. eugenics movement. And so you have this long history. What about federal legislation at this point?

ERIKA COHN: Yeah, federal legislation was actually passed in the 1970s, thanks to the Relf sisters, who brought a case that was revolutionary and was able to ensure that any institution that receives federal funding should not be performing these sterilizations. And so, we are looking at a legacy, as you mentioned, of forced sterilization to — on Indigenous women through the federally funded Indian Health Services program, through Mexican American women who were sterilized without their consent in the Los Angeles County Medical Center.

And we are literally at the precipice of creating lasting change. I think if we confront our eugenics history, we can prevent a new genocide from happening. And as Kelli mentioned, there’s actually a reparations movement going on right now to compensate survivors of sterilization abuse and right that wrong. And in California right now, the reparations movement acknowledges both past and present forced sterilizations, to compensate historical survivors, as well as those who were sterilized as recent as 2014.

And there is a precedent for this. I believe California can follow in the footsteps of North Carolina and Virginia, who were the first to pass the historical reparations bill, as well as ensure accountability for modern instances of forced sterilization, like what happened a few years ago in California and like what is happening at the ICE facility in Georgia today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Kelli Dillon, who at the age of 24, in 2001, was forcibly sterilized while she was imprisoned in California, and Erika Cohn. She is the Peabody- and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, producer and director of the new film, Belly of the Beast, that tells not only Kelli’s story, but the story of so many other women.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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