A review of ‘The Belly of the Beast,’ a new documentary by director Erika Cohn
by Wanda Sabir
“As countries implemented lockdown measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, violence against women, especially domestic violence, intensified – in some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold.
“The UN Secretary General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, a multi-year effort aimed at preventing and eliminating violence against women and girls, will focus on amplifying the call for global action to bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence during the COVID-19 crisis and focus on prevention and collection of data that can improve life-saving services for women and girls.” – United Nations
On Nov. 25, Kim McMillon hosted a poetry reading in support of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As we gathered virtually to highlight this important issue through poetry and prose, Kim and Nina spoke of Mama Coatl, the late artivist responsible for San Francisco’s observance of the day.
The day kicks off 16 days of activism concluding on Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day. The theme this year is “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”
Many people know October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and that purple is the reigning color, but the International Campaign to End Violence against Women is not as well known. That orange is the color highlighted is further irony when we think about the thousands of abused women and girls behind bars dressed in orange jumpsuits.
Orange is the new black. Orange also paves the brick road to detention, a place where one can find herself in a literal cage or a cell, all human rights evaporated. Such happened to Kelli Dillion while she was serving a 15-year sentence in California’s Central Valley.
Is orange a subtle hint that women who defend themselves from violent attacks and survive are then criminalized by a judicial system that does not recognize a partner’s violence as defensible? So many women are in prison for killing their batterers. It was their and their children’s lives or their partner’s.
There are so many programs for the abuser and little to none for the survivor. Survivors have to create their own support network and the girls who are victimized are often left with no support at all.
Children who survive are put on a treadmill into a lion’s lair where they are eaten alive, their bones toothpicks. These kids lack the resources to save themselves. Institutions spend time and money on perpetrators rather than victims and so they miss these children, often girls, until it is too late.
Many survivors end up in California correctional institutions with rap sheets longer than they are tall. Trauma-bound and trauma-driven, these children are easy prey for predators who know the marks and lay traps with bait just for them.
If a person was deemed poor, insane, a criminal, unfit, Mexican or Black, the state facilitated the person’s sterilization. Yep, there were big bucks in decreasing the population of unfavorables.
Besides having the largest incarcerated women’s population in the world, California also has the distinction of being the eugenics capital until such practices were outlawed in 1979. Eugenics, a system of population control seeped in systemic racism and sexism, is an othering of major proportions by the politically powerful and elite.
Eugenics reared its ugly head not once but twice. “Belly of the Beast,” directed by Erika Cohn, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director, tells the more recent story. Produced by Angela Tucker, director of “All Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk,” it is now streaming on pov.org
Shot over a period of seven years, we meet two amazing warriors, Kelli Dillion and Cynthia Chandler, and many others who are just as phenomenal. These heroes don’t don capes or fly through the air. These brave women risk retaliation to tell this important story.
By 1979, 20,000 people in sunny California were sterilized forcefully through deceptive procedures. If a person was deemed poor, insane, a criminal, unfit, Mexican or Black, the state facilitated the person’s sterilization. Yep, there were big bucks in decreasing the population of unfavorables.
At the height of post-1979 eugenics, Chowchilla, Calif., was the epicenter for an insidious secret mission to systematically rid the state of its less-favored population of incarcerated mothers – Black women, poor women, Latinx women, Indigenous women and others.
California legislators were broadsided. No one knew these sterilizations were taking place because they thought the practice had been outlawed. Not so for incarcerated women. This profitable secret might have remained secret except for one woman, Kelli Dillion.
When she chose life instead of death, self-defense cost Kelli 15 years of her life, the years she would have spent raising her two sons. Time can’t be returned, but Kelli lost something else just as precious, something she had not imagined losing. It was stolen from her, taken without her consent.
Kelli’s ordeal began when she complained of pain in her uterus. A doctor scheduled exploratory surgery. He told her he saw cysts, saying that if he found any malignant cells, he would perform a hysterectomy.
Later when Kelli awakened from the procedure, the doctor told her everything was fine. Translated, Kelli heard there was no cancer and she had all of her reproductive equipment intact.
There was no reason for the sterilization other than the California Corrections medical contractors’ decision to save the state money by decreasing this woman’s ability to bring children into the world.
When she started to lose weight, began having menopausal symptoms and didn’t get any answers from prison medical staff, she wrote a letter to Justice Now, a prisoner advocacy organization in Oakland. Cynthia Chandler, co-founder and lead attorney, subpoenaed Kelli’s medical records and had the heartbreaking task of reading medical records to Kelli detailing what happened to her.
Kelli’s dreams were shattered. There was no reason for the sterilization other than the California Corrections medical contractors’ decision to save the state money by decreasing this woman’s ability to bring children into the world.
There was an unspoken narrative that certain women were not fit mothers and that it was a tax savings to sterilize them “while everything was out on the table. A couple snips and it’s done,” a nurse who set up an OB-GYN clinic at CCWF said.
It was as if the women were felines, not human beings with rights and feelings. One doctor would almost forcibly make women agree to sterilization if they were having a second or third child, his nurse responsible for gathering the signatures. She stated after the bill’s passage ended the practice that she thought sterilization was useful and did not regret her role in a process that left hundreds of women unable to bear children.
Justice Now launched an investigation. Letters from incarcerated women spoke of pressure to sign medical forms while cut open and in various states of consciousness.
One woman shared being forced to have a C-section when she was perfectly capable of vaginal childbirth. “Why would I want to have major surgery?” She asks. While in the operating room she was requested to sign a form agreeing to the tubal ligation.
Justice Now and Corey Johnson, a journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), uncovered tubal ligations connected to these C-sections which cost the state of California hundreds of thousands of dollars. The interviews and surveys sent into CCWF and the stealth meetings on the prison yard where documents exchanged hands led organizers like Justice Now and California Coalition for Women Prisoners to learn that forced sterilization was bigger than the organizers had imagined.
We hear the voices of these women and their stories read aloud in the film narrative. I met some of these women myself on legal advocacy visits with CCWP. One woman said the doctor told her a hysterectomy would help her headaches; She suffered from mental illness.
“Of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found more than a quarter were done without evidence of the required consent.”
One loses her agency once she dons an orange garment and numbers replace her name. This makes it hard for the team at Justice Now to identify the scope of the travesty given the anonymity of its victims. The Center for Investigative Journalism and Justice Now – which has currently and formerly incarcerated women on its board – pushed the California Legislature to ratify and enforce new legislation to stop CDCR from sterilizing incarcerated women.
Corey Johnson says in Reveal, a publication of the Center for Investigative Reporting: “Of the 144 tubal ligations performed on inmates from fiscal years 2005-06 to 2012-13, auditors found more than a quarter were done without evidence of the required consent. Fifty white women, 53 Latinx women, 35 Black women and six women classified as ‘other’ received the procedure. All of them had been jailed at least once. Most read at less than a high school level.”
Gov. Jerry Johnson signed SB1135 on Sept. 25, 2014. This new legislation specifically includes prisons in the eugenics ban, yet, in the federal prison system here in California and elsewhere in the country, not to mention the other state prisons, sterilization is still happening. To sterilize a person is to shred their humanity, and for it to continue in other legislative bodies like the federal government makes one question what kind of “beasts” are these in government office.
Mary J. Blige says in an interview with Larisha Paul at “U Discover Music” that when she heard Kelli’s story, “I immediately knew I wanted to be involved, so I teamed up with Nova Wav and DJ Camper to write a song that would amplify the voices of women in prison. No one has the right to make decisions about a woman’s body without her consent, and ‘See What You’ve Done’ is an indictment, a testimony, a call to be strong and an anthem for a movement whose work isn’t done yet.”
In “See What You’ve Done,” Blige sings about the many people made invisible by this trauma and whose wounds are irreversible.
“What’s going on / When I gotta fight for a right that is rightfully mine / What’s going on / When the world can decide if a caged bird flies or ever gets a chance to grow / Too many people are invisible / It’s a problem / How can we ignore what’s going on / I got questions I need answers / It’s been too long.”
There is no reversing the travesty of justice. These women will never be able to bear children again, yet they “are fighters.”
“We won’t lay down, we’re survivors / All my scars are my reminders / ‘Cause it ain’t over.”
As California looks to establish a commission on reparations for African American descendants of enslaved people, via AB3121, the persons sterilized should also be compensated monetarily.
Kelli is currently supporting California’s reparations bill, AB3052, “which provides justice and compensation for the survivors. Should it pass, it is evidence that California has a willingness to acknowledge the medical injustices, the medical malpractices and the lack of respect for human life for people of color, in which they have suffered at the hands of the people who were supposed to preserve it and protect it.”
The criminal legal system needs to step up and reform its still inadequate medical care for women, especially women who are aging and now at risk for COVID-19. “Belly of the Beast” closes with a brief look at the fallout from the legislative victory four years ago – incarcerated women at CCWF are denied reproductive care or made to wait unnecessarily for treatment.
It is appalling that taxpayers pay for the healthcare of politicians, most of whom, if not all, are able to afford their own coverage, while for the more vulnerable among us there are no services. Nonetheless, this win against the powerful CDCR is encouraging and can serve as a blueprint for continued systemic change.
Bay View Arts and Culture Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.