Documentary on forced sterilization in California prisons helps spark new policy compensating women

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Documentary on forced sterilization in California prisons helps spark new policy compensating women

Documentary filmmaker Erika Cohn, with a grant from the Fund, worked for seven years to tell the story of illegal sterilizations in California prisons and jails. Her film, “Belly of the Beast,” builds on the reporting of Corey G. Johnson, then working for the Center for Investigative Reporting, and focuses on the fight of inmate Kelli Dillon and her lawyer against the California Department of Corrections. The revelations of forced sterilizations, often done without knowledge or understanding by women of the ramifications, helped spur passage of a 2014 law banning forced sterilization for the purposes of birth control. In 2021, California’s governor Gavin Newsom (D) included $7.5 million in his budget to provide reparations to survivors of state-sponsored forced or involuntary sterilization. About 600 people who were subjected to the procedure are still thought to be living, and each would be entitled to about $25,000 under the program, which began on Jan. 1, 2022. 

The planned payments make California the third state in the nation to agree to provide funds to compensate survivors who were sterilized under state eugenics laws. California is the first state to provide reparations to survivors who were sterilized while incarcerated in women’s prisons.

Between 1909 and 1979, California sterilized at least 20,000 people under the  eugenics law, accounting for one third of eugenics sterilizations nationwide. People with disabilities, Latinas, women and poor people were disproportionately targeted. The state repealed the law in 1979, but forced sterilization continued. A 2013 California state audit revealed that at least 144 women were illegally sterilized while in California’s custody from 2006 to 2013. The Center for Investigative Reporting (now Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting) reported that between 2006 and 2010, at least 148 pregnant women received tubal ligations shortly after giving birth while incarcerated at two California prisons.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates said that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

Belly of the Beast found in state audit and prison records data that showed there were nearly 1,400 sterilizations between 1997 and 2013. In addition to people sterilized during labor, an unknown number of cis women and trans people were sterilized during other abdominal procedures, as in Dillon’s case.

Dillon was 24 years old when a doctor at the California facility where she was incarcerated sterilized her without consent. To tell the story of the treatment faced by women (a majority of them Black and Latino) in California’s correctional facilities, Cohn links Dillon’s story with those of Cynthia Chandler, a founder of the prison abolition organization Justice Now, and Johnson, now of the Tampa Bay Times.

The film takes viewers inside prison to reveal statewide practices including inadequate health care, sexual abuse and assault, coercive sterilizations and targeting of women of color.

The documentary was the Opening Night Film at the 2020 Human Rights Watch Film Festival and cited as a New York Times  Critic’s Pick. The film opened in theaters and was broadcast nationally as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series.