PBS recently released a documentary on the forced sterilization of women in CA prisons, as they struggle for accountability by the state and the CA Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the consequences of the practice, which went on for years. Although it has now been outlawed, there has been no justice or recompense for the hundreds of women who were affected. the PBS Independent Lens documentary is no longer available for streaming but the trailer is here: https://www.kpbs.org/news/2020/nov/23/independent-lens-belly-beast/
Initial press reports said 148 women had been forcibly sterilized without their informed consent. https://revealnews.org/article/female-inmates-sterilized-in-california-prisons-without-approval/ But further investigation showed that the total was at least 1400, and that attitudes within the prison system have not changed, despite legislation signed by Jerry Brown before he left office. Kelli Dillon, one of those subjected to a forced hysterectomy after being told she would be biopsied for a possible cancer (she had no cancer, but her uterus was removed), is working with Justice Now, an Oakland-based non-profit, to seek corrective actions by the state. She is the focus of the documentary, and has since been interviewed on Democracy Now! and elsewhere. She is pictured above, giving testimony about her forced hysterectomy.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview with her and film-maker Erika Cohn from The19th.org, a woman-focused news site https://19thnews.org/2020/10/belly-of-the-beast-forced-sterilizations-california-prisons/:
The 19th: Kelli, you said in the film when you were thinking about testifying in front of the legislature in California, that this is your story, something that you own and decide who you tell it to. Because each time you divulge and relive this trauma, you’re the one that has to go home and deal with it. So what was the process of you deciding to re-live everything in the documentary world?
Kelli Dillon: Erika did a phenomenal job in capturing those actual moments for me, especially when I was in the courtroom and different things like that, the reenactments, because it was so accurate from her telling. She did a great job.
But also, it was hard. I’m very bold about a lot of things that I talk about, I have a very strong voice in a lot of different areas. But this is the only area that really brought me pain, shame. I felt that I was going to be judged, because I have been judged in so many different areas of my life, and there was no compassion or consideration for the trauma that I have been through. So it took me a moment to really just get the courage to share that story. But it was in Erica’s kindness, her understanding of eugenics and understanding of the history of sterilization, the U.S. history of sterilization is what actually gave me the feeling of trust — to trust her with my story. And still, even though we were filming in the backdrop of my life, I still hadn’t really came out publicly and very strongly or boldly about my story until “Belly of the Beast” started to be featured.
The 19th: I think right now people are talking a little bit more about eugenics and sterilization because of what’s happening with the whistleblower complaint out of the ICE detention center in Georgia. Even with that story, I think the reaction was ‘This is something that has never happened in this country,’ let alone something that happened, and is well documented, in California prisons too. Can we talk a little bit about the history?
Dillon: While we were trying to pick up momentum for “Belly of the Beast,” that’s when Dawn Wooten also came out [with the whistleblower report alleging hysterectomies in an ICE detention center in Georgia]. What was happening, was such an ordained time. The fact that we were saying these things were happening and are happening in the state of California, and to have it confirmed and verified on the other side of the United States in the exact same way, almost verbatim, was like, “Whoa.” It made everybody have to take action, and pay attention to the fact that no, there is no denying, this is not a conspiracy theory. This is actually happening to women of color in this modern day.
When I heard it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, like, that’s my story.’ It really was a wake up call and it strengthened me, and gave me more courage. Because I was a little worried about me being alone over here in California, and stating that it’s not just a California thing, but a United States thing. But to see Dawn Wooten come out and speak so boldly and courageously as a staff member … I didn’t feel alone anymore.
Cohn: That was a conversation that Kelli and I had a lot making the film: How do we make it abundantly clear that this is not just California, this is not just Kelli? This is eugenics as an ideology. Forced sterilization is genocide, and has a legacy in the United States, and that’s deeply rooted in white supremacy. When we think about eugenics today, we are witnessing systemic racism and population control — through policing, through imprisonment, through the immigration detention system and lack of access to health care. This is just another instance of modern day eugenics.
You can learn more about this struggle from Justice Now, an abolitionist organization: https://www.justicenow.org/what-we-do and Project South, who filed the complaint around the forced sterilizations of women in a Georgia ICE detention facility: https://projectsouth.org/enough-is-enough/
Meanwhile, incarcerated women in CA are facing new threats from COVID-19. One in five prisoners around the US have contracted COVID, and 17,000 have already died. You can take action about the threat to women locked up at CCWF:
COVID rates are rising rapidly at Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and we are hearing from folks inside that people are still being required to go to work, CDCR staff are not wearing masks and people who are sent to quarantine are not being allowed to have access to their electronic devices which means no communication with the outside world.
Please use the phone/email script below to contact the following offices:
CCWF – Call 559-665-5531 – option 5, Custody Services – leave message
Warden Michael Pallares, CCWF, Mike.Pallares@cdcr.ca.gov
CEO of Health, Jimmy Webster, Ph.D, CCWF, James.Webster@cdcr.ca.gov
CCWF/CIW Ombudsperson Sara Smith: email@example.com
CDCR Director of Healthcare Services: Joseph Bick firstname.lastname@example.org
Federal Healthcare Receiver Clark Kelso: 916.739.7000, email@example.com
Governor Newsom: 916.445.2841, firstname.lastname@example.org
CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison: 916.324.7308, press 8 & leave message for Allison, email@example.com
Senator Nancy Skinner: Chair, Senate Public Safety Cmte., firstname.lastname@example.org
Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager, Chair, Select Cmte. on Incarcerated Women: Assemblymember.Kamlager@assembly.ca.gov
Senator Anna Caballero: email@example.com
Michael Bien ( RBGG): firstname.lastname@example.org
Steven Fama ( PLO): email@example.com
Phone and Email Script:
My name is _____ and, alongside incarcerated people at the Central California Women’s Facility, I am calling with serious concerns regarding the rapid increase of COVID at CCWF. I strongly urge you to take the following crucial steps:
Halt all non-essential work at CCWF immediately.
Ensure that those placed in quarantine have access to all their electronic devices and power sources for charging them in order to maintain contact with their loved ones and others in the outside world. People in quarantine should be treated humanely not punished for being ill!
Enforce mask use by CDCR staff and mandatory sick leave for staff who show any symptoms of illness or who test positive for COVID-19.
Provide urgently needed healthcare, including mental health care.
Rapidly release all medically vulnerable, at-risk & elderly people regardless of conviction!
Thousands of our community members and loved ones’ lives are on the line. Use your power to intervene and save lives.