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Belly of the Beast

Women Directed

Dir. Erika Cohn USA 82 min

2020 Erika Cohn

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.

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