Belly of the Beast

Belly of the Beast

November 23, 2020

by

Erika Cohn

Two women investigate a pattern of illegal sterilizations in women’s prisons and battle the Department of Corrections.

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About the Documentary

When an unlikely duo discovers a pattern of illegal sterilizations—nearly forty years after being banned— in women’s prisons, shielded by prison officials and doctors inside the correctional system, they wage a near-impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons, through intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people. 

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 at the world’s largest women’s prison, the Central California Women’s Facility. As they prepare to take Kelli’s case to court, 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 forced 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, in a fight for reparations and justice.

The Filmmakers

Erika Cohn

Erika Cohn is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director and producer who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top documentary filmmakers and was featured in DOC NYC’s 2019 “40 Under 40.” Most recently, Erika completed The Judge, a Peabody Award-winning and Emmy-nominated film about the first woman judge to be appointed to the Middle East’s Shari’a courts. Erika co-directed and produced In Football We Trust, an Emmy award-winning documentary about the unique faith and culture that ultimately drives young Pacific Islander men into the NFL.

Full Credits

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Join the Discussion

Had you heard of illegal sterilizations in women's prisons—or elsewhere—before? Do you think the film bringing these women's' stories to light will ultimately bring about change in the prison system?

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