Independent Lens: Belly of the Beast

(Rochester, NY) -- Nearly forty years after being banned, a pattern of illegal sterilizations in America’s women’s prisons has continued undetected, shielded by prison officials and doctors inside the correctional system. From Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director and producer Erika Cohn, Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons, through intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people filmed over the course of seven years. Belly of the Beast premieres on Independent Lens on Monday, November 23, 2020 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV.

At the Central California Women’s Facility, the world’s largest women’s prison, a young woman named Kelli Dillon, who was involuntarily sterilized at the age of 24 while incarcerated, teams up with Cynthia Chandler, a human rights lawyer, to fight for reproductive justice. As they prepare to take Kelli’s case to court with the help of Chandler’s activist organization Justice Now, they uncover a wide range of crimes occurring within the facility—from inadequate access to healthcare to sexual assault to illegal sterilization—the latter largely perpetrated against the facility’s Black and Latinx populations. 

While prison doctors and officials contend that these sterilizations were in each person’s best interest and an overall social benefit, Chandler and Dillon call into question how these procedures continued for so long after being banned in California since 1979. Their joint efforts in exposing the atrocities carried out behind closed doors ultimately shed new, timely light on the systemic racism and violence impacting people of color in women’s prisons, as activists and allies take to the courtroom to fight for reparations and some semblance of justice.

Credit: Courtesy of Belly of the Beast LLC

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