A new film tells about the illegal sterilization of women in prisons

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IN 2001 KELLI DILLON was an inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility when she started having pain in her abdomen. A doctor, who suspected ovarian cysts, ordered a biopsy. But after the procedure, Ms Dillon started having heart palpitations and night sweats. Her periods stopped. The doctor had not only removed the cysts, he had also removed her ovaries. She was sterilized at the age of 24.

“Belly of the Beast,” a documentary directed by Erika Cohn, chronicles Ms. Dillon’s harrowing experience. Shot over seven years, it also follows Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of Justice Now, an advocacy group for female prisoners, as the couple seeks legal and financial redress. Ms. Dillon’s discovery that a dozen other women in the prison had also been sterilized was the focus of further research by the agency and, later, by Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting, a think tank.

Mr Johnson found evidence of 148 cases between 2006 and 2010 in which doctors at two prisons had carried out unauthorized tubal ligations (permanent blockage or removal of the fallopian tubes) on prisoners. Some women said they were pressured to have the procedures, which were often added to surgeries such as caesarean sections; others were not properly informed about what would happen. Dr James Heinrich, who did much of the work, told Mr Johnson he had been saving the state from paying benefits for “unwanted children”.

After the news broke, California legislators held hearings — where Ms. Dillon and Ms. Chandler testified — and banned sterilization as a form of birth control in prison in 2014. Data from a state survey, and prison records collected journalists working with Ms. Cohn, revealed that nearly 1,400 women were sterilized between 1997 and 2013 while incarcerated in California penal institutions.

“Belly of the Beast” was a difficult film to make. At first financial backers thought the concept was implausible. Ms. Cohn had limited access to her sources in prison and access to documents was difficult. Since some of the main events had already happened behind bars, “we chose to recreate carefully, each memory, each moment, each confined space,” she said. She weaves them into a strong narrative. with a mix of interviews and archival footage.

Ms Cohn argues that the work was not a movement. In the 20th century eugenics programs were common in America. Of the 30 states that implemented them, California was the largest, with approximately 20,000 people forcibly sterilized between 1909 and 1979. The programs targeted people for reasons such as “weak -mind”, “immoral” or slavery, and often name minorities. Virginia, which was second only to California in the number of people it sterilized, continued the policy until 1979. More than a fifth of its 8,000 victims were African-American.

“The illegal sterilizations specifically targeting women of color smacks of eugenics to me,” Ms. Cohn says. “As a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, the phrase ‘never again’ was just always deep in the back of my mind. ” The topic is also relevant again due to allegations that sterilizations have been taking place in ICE detention centers. “When you can put the historical precedents into context, that helps us better understand why these events keep happening.”

Ms. Dillon sued the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2006 for the loss of her fertility and violation of her civil rights, but lost the case in 2009. Citing the statute of limitations , the CDCR said she had waited too long to make her claim. In February a bill was introduced in the California legislature to compensate people who were wrongly sterilized by the state, but it did not move forward. (By comparison, North Carolina passed a reparations bill in 2013 and Virginia followed in 2015.) Ms. Cohn remains hopeful that these women will receive reparations in the future. “You see Kelli and Cynthia and these other groups still fighting…they’re literally on the verge of creating permanent change on this issue. So I think it’s important to clarify that this is also an inspirational story.”

“Belly of the Beast” aired on PBS in America on November 23 and is available to stream online for two weeks

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