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‘Belly of the Beast’ analyzes incarcerated Black women and the systematic racism of illegal sterilization

‘Belly of the Beast’ director Erika Cohn and producer Angela Tucker discuss the imprisonment of women of color, the problematic invisibility of those incarcerated, and how the film illustrates racial injustice as a public health issue.

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Surrounding the Central California Women’s Facility, the world’s largest women’s prison, two women uncover the pattern of forced and illegal sterilizations as they produce and direct the film Belly of the Beast. Being filmed over the course of seven years, the contemporary legal drama includes intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated women about their personal experiences with the reproductive injustice system and as director Erika Cohn call it, “Modern-day eugenics.”

The film follows the journey of a domestic violence survivor who was involuntarily sterilized, Kelli Dillon, as she teams up with attorney and prison industrial complex abolitionist Cynthia Chandler to put a permanent halt to these invasive violations. Together, they form a strong alliance with women in and out of prison to reveal the history and the truth behind the reproductive and human rights violations primarily targeted toward Black women and women of color. As they go up against the Department of Corrections, doctors and prison officials insisted that what they were doing to these women was in the best interest of each victim and the country’s socio-economic system as a whole.

Directed by Peabody and Emmy award-winning Erika Cohn and produced by Emmy nominated Angela Tucker, Belly of the Beast is a powerful exposé of human rights abuses of women in the criminal justice system. On the initial inspiration behind the film, Cohn tells REVOLT that she was introduced to Chandler ten years ago through mutual friends and was immediately inspired by her work. “She represented the first terminally ill people who were granted release from prison in California and I was really intrigued by Justice Now, the organization that she co-founded which is one of the only — if not, the only — U.S. organization with board members in prison who lead strategy and work collaboratively with those in the free (non-incarcerated) world,” Cohn raves about Chandler’s work. Cohn continues to speak on her admiration for Justice Now’s “Let Our Families Have A Future” campaign, which exposed the multiple ways that prisons destroy the human right to family.

“I think Cynthia recognized my passion for exposing modern day eugenics [and] invited me into the organization as a volunteer, after which I became a volunteer legal advocate providing direct service needs for over 150 people in California women’s prisons. From there, I began collaborating with people inside on a project that ultimately became Belly of the Beast,” she added.

REVOLT had the chance to speak to Cohn and Tucker about the imprisonment of women of color, the problematic invisibility of those incarcerated, and how Belly of the Beast illustrates racial injustice as a public health issue. Read below.

Erika and Angela, how did you connect? And what did you each discover about illegal sterilizations that you used to create this project?

Tucker: We met at a film festival and I’m producer of the film. Erika approached me at the festival. She sent me a trailer she’d been working on for years before that on the film, and when I watched the trailer, I was really blown away. I had some of the reactions a lot of people have, which is, as a Black woman, I am familiar with forced sterilization happening [and] there’s a whole legacy of that happening particularly here in the south where I live. When I heard about what’s happening within prisons, I was horrified, but I wasn’t surprised and I really thought to myself [that] someone should make a film about this. I was so happy that Erika was and that I could be a part of it, so I got on this project about three years ago.

Cohn: This disproportionately impacts women of color, which is, at its core, eugenics. There are multiple ways that the sterilizations in prisons were happening, one during labor and delivery, when they were being asked to sign consent forms, not fully understanding what they were signing. One person in the film describes how she had already had an epidural, was handed a form to sign, and had no idea what she’d X’d. In the case of the tubal ligations, people to this day still don’t know they were sterilized because there aren’t the same kinds of symptoms that come from a hysterectomy. For example, with a hysterectomy, you are kind of forced into surgical menopause. Another way in which the sterilizations were happening, we noticed people were being told that they had cervical cancer when in fact they didn’t; or they needed a hysterectomy, when in fact they actually didn’t. People would go in, seek medical support for basic reproductive care, and they [were] told they needed a hysterectomy to deal with things like cramping or heavy bleeding. Also, people would go in for other routine procedures and come out with a hysterectomy or ovariectomy.

Tucker: What struck me when we did one of many interviews with Kelli, she said something in the film which is important for people to understand. It’s not like you can Google the symptoms to get an understanding of what’s going on with you and say, “This is the right route” or, “This is the wrong route.” When you’re in a position when you’re seeing a doctor when you’re in prison, you pretty much have to take them at their word. There’s no second or third opinion. These things were happening because there’s really no way to have any informed consent in this setting. I just wanted to say that because I feel like it can be hard for people sometimes to imagine having these surgeries happen to you against your will and something so out of anything, you could imagine. That’s kind of setting the scene for what it’s like for many of these women.

Cohn: One person actually reported, “I went in there trusting this man. They said he was a specialist. I went in there, you know, because all my life I trusted doctors. You know that is the one place you can go in and know that they are there to help you.”

What was the importance of using television and film to spread the knowledge of what’s happening to these incarcerated women?

Cohn: I think that prisons are so far out of our sights, out of our consciousness, far from our physical reach, and we are rarely granted access to the world that is in prisons that isn’t dramatized or sensationalized. With Belly of the Beast, I really wanted to reimagine how we visualized the prisons using imagery that evokes memory and passage of time, contrasting confinement and freedom. Just really facing the viewer with intimate, vulnerable and uncomfortable spaces. Using a cinematic language that really conjures the notion of consent as Angela was saying, how can informed consent be a team behind prison walls?

How was the filming process, especially at Central California Women’s Facility?

Cohn: From my years of working as a legal advocate with people inside women’s prisons, I had the opportunity to meet with over 150 people inside and I remember waiting for each meeting within a small brick room devoid of color and life, and yet when each person would enter the room, it would become alive with descriptive, with energy... Our audience may not have the opportunity to meet with everyone that I had the privilege to work with, and I really wanted to transport viewers into their worlds that were so carefully described and shared with me. Because our filmmaking team has access to some of those spaces, we chose to carefully reconstruct, really agonizing over every detail feeling the weight of responsibility and gravity of accurately depicting each memory, each moment, each restrictive space. I think our team really strove to visually demystify incarceration and cinematically push the boundaries of what would typically be observational filmmaking using a combination of first person POV, recreation, and observational footage.

Tucker: This was a challenging project to make for both of us, with all of the assets and doing the things that we needed to do. But, it’s also a very challenging project emotionally. What really pushed me throughout the process was the importance of having these women’s stories be heard and having people know about this injustice. Once this was out there, we fully participated in trying to make some real change and we’re trying to fully sort out what is really possible with the systems that are in place.

What were some of your most shocking discoveries when filming?

Tucker: I mean, it’s hard because it’s all really, really shocking. Just the idea that a woman goes to surgery for one thing and goes out with something else — that in and of itself is really shocking. I think the extent that people went to try to cover up that it was happening and the general denial that what was happening was wrong by certain doctors was pretty shocking to me. We’ve been pretty clear there’s not one villain, and I mean there were a lot of people who participated in this happening. There’s a lot to choose from in terms of what’s shocking.

Cohn: Yeah, I agree with you. I think everything is horrifying in this process. I think probably behind the camera, the Center for Investigative Reporting, in the process of making this film became part of the narrative. One of the reasons the Center for Investigative Reporting’s work became so crucial in the film’s narrative is it ultimately led to a national conversation and a series of hearings in the California state’s legislature. I think the Center for Investigative Reporting also provided the film with a legitimacy and urgency that many people needed prior to recording the film. Until that point, so many people couldn’t believe illegal sterilizations were actually happening and therefore couldn’t get behind a film that exposed the practice in prisons despite us having hundreds of testimonials from those who were directly impacted. I don’t know if I would call it shocking, but that was a real wake-up call.

How were you introduced to survivor and advocate Kelli Dillon? What resonated with you the most about her story?

Cohn: When I started volunteering for Justice Now, I initially started by working on campaign videos and editing short testimonials. One of those was Kelli’s and at the time, she was going by a pseudonym. Kelli was kind of this legendary person who I had heard about [and] had edited her videos. Even though I had heard about her incredible activism, the moment that I met her, we actually met a couple years later after I started volunteering in Los Angeles and began collaborating on a variety of projects including Belly of the Beast. Her powerful activism through Justice Now and her experiences as a survivor, her courage and selfless advocacy for others really, we knew the film needed to center around her story. As we reveal in the film, her discoveries really catalyze Justice Now to begin investigating the illegal sterilizations in prison through which we meet other survivors. If it wasn’t for Kelli, the process of uncovering how this impacted other people would not have happened and helped many, many years later.

How do you believe we, as a people, should move forward with raising awareness about women of color in mass incarceration and forced sterilization?

Cohn: I think that we’re witnessing population control and systemic racism through policing, through imprisonment, and lack of access to healthcare. I really believe that Belly of the Beast is part of the broader conversation that highlights these injustices as a case for lasting change and cause for immediate redress and reparations.

Angela, as a Black woman, what was the importance of you and your work amplifying the voices of thousands of Black women and women of color who have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent, especially in today’s climate?

Tucker: Well, I think you really said it in the question (laughs). My life’s work is to tell Black stories and to tell stories that really give an informed understanding of what it truly is like to be Black in America. That’s part of why I had to be part of this film because this is one of those things that people hear and want to brush off as though it’s not possible when [as] a Black woman, you know where forced sterilizations are happening and you understand the power structure that keeps things like this happening in a real lived way. This is really my life’s work. So, that’s why I’m fighting as hard as I can to not only get as many people to see it as possible, [but] to also figure out how we can use the film as a tool to make some kind of change whether that change be reparations or whatever kind of work for the activists who are in the trenches right now.

Erika, as a legal advocate working inside of women’s prisons, how did you translate all of that to your work in Belly of the Beast?

Cohn: I think so oftentimes women, girls and transgender people of color get left out of conversations related to imprisonment, and centering the narrative around the experiences of those who have direct experience inside women’s prisons really can reframe the lens in which we view mass incarceration. There’s a profound lack of resources, attention and interest surrounding women’s incarceration and I think this immense dehumanization and fear of retaliation often inhibits incarcerated people — specifically people in women’s prisons — voices from being heard which can further marginalize an already-near “invisible” population. In the past month, this film has remained uncovered to protect the privacy of participants inside prisons and preserve some of the campaigns to end sterilization abuse. I really hope that Belly of the Beast, in shining a light on healthcare and women’s rights abuses inside prisons, will really provide a platform to call attention to other injustices within our criminal justice system.

How does Belly of the Beast show that racism is a public health issue, especially since sterilization targets Black women and women of color?

Cohn: Well, I think this is to what I said earlier, we are witnessing modern-day eugenics, true population control, true systemic racism as it relates to policing, imprisonment and lack of access to healthcare. I think our institutions really need to be held accountable for how they destroy the basic human right to family.

Tucker: I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that this was happening more to women of color. That right there is reflective of how racism is a public health issue. There’s a section in the film where one of the doctors, Dr. Heinrich, says this line: “Doing this was cheaper than welfare.” That right there is an example of how he, and many other doctors, saw the women that they were doing this to — there’s a race element there. There’s a class element too, but there’s a racial element particularly. To think that these are the people who are supposed to help you take care of your physical health... where [they] don’t even really see them as human, then that allows you to do all kinds of dehumanizing things to this population. It’s a real issue.

Cohn: We calculated between the California state audit and prison records that nearly 1,400 sterilizations occurred between 1997 and 2013. Since 2013, California was required to report the number of sterilizations performed each year and prove medical necessity around each procedure. Throughout the past couple of years, our team sent freedom of information act requests to dozens of states around the country. We know that these eight states allow for sterilization under certain conditions and then speaking with other organizations across the nation who also work with people in women’s prisons, we know that sterilization abuse is still happening, but we don’t know to what degree. Given the level of secrecy and privacy, these institutions, specifically prisons and all of the issues surrounding the access to healthcare documents these institutions are hiding behind, it’s very difficult to uncover these abuses of power.

Tucker: I can’t remember if we said this already, but with the tubal ligations, it is very difficult to know how many women had those and whether or not consent was given for those operations. That gets into the idea that there are so many more women out there this could’ve happened to and we’ll never really know how many.

What are your hopes for the film when viewers watch it? What do you want to be their main takeaway?

Cohn: Right now, we actually have a petition for reparations on Change.org and in coalition with Kelli’s organization Back To The Basics, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, California Latinas For Reproductive Justice, and Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. There’s a movement in California to provide compensation for sterilization survivors between 1909 and 1979, those who were historically sterilized through this eugenics program as well as those who were sterilized in prisons very recently. I hope there’s a real push to hold our institutions accountable and provide reparations for the survivors. I also hope this provides awareness about current day eugenics practices and really centers the conversation about mass incarceration and imprisonment within women’s prisons and those who are incarcerated within women’s prison’s direct lived experience.

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