‘Belly of the Beast’ documentary reveals eugenics in prisons

Maddy Erskine

Graphic illustration stating "ACT Film Festival"
(Graphic illustration by Malia Berry | The Collegian)

Erika Cohn’s documentary “Belly of the Beast” exposes the human rights violations happening in California women’s prisons while centering the voices of the brave women, both in and out of prison, who fought to put an end to it. 

This documentary was part of this year’s ACT Human Rights Film Festival at Colorado State University, and after watching it, it is incredibly clear why the film was chosen. It addresses issues of intersectionality, especially against women of color in correctional facilities. The film is centered on the story of Kelli Dillon and the legal battle and process of Senate Bill 1135, which now prohibits sterilization as a form of birth control in California prisons. 

Ad

By centering the story on these women and their fight for justice, the film is able to convey the heartbreak, trauma and courage that was behind the passing of (Senate Bill) 1135. Hearing Dillon’s testimonies, both from her personal case and in support of SB-1135, makes you want to be in that courtroom to support her.”

While serving time at the Central California Women’s Facility, Dillon was a victim of involuntary illegal sterilization without her knowledge, but after her surgery, she started experiencing symptoms of surgical menopause. Dillon wrote a letter to Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of Justice Now, a nonprofit organization that provides legal advocacy to people in women’s prisons.

After reading the letter, Chandler worked with Dillon to uncover abuses at California women’s facilities and discovered a trend of involuntary sterilizations, primarily against Black and Latinx populants. The findings point toward a dark history of eugenics in California, with illegal sterilizations performed to prevent women of color from reproducing.

The audience gets an in-depth look at Chandler’s life, job and even the colorful shoes that she wore when visiting the prison to help brighten the room. Despite the harsh subject matter, the documentary is much more than dark and depressing.

By centering the story on these women and their fight for justice, the film conveys the heartbreak, trauma and courage that was behind the passing of SB-1135. Hearing Dillon’s testimonies, both from her personal case and in support of SB-1135, makes you want to be in that courtroom to support her. It makes you want to do anything in your power to stop this from happening to any other woman ever again.  

The hardest part about watching this film is learning how long this human rights violation was able to go on for and the countless women who were sterilized. It’s also the difficult realization that this is not the only problem women in prison face but this isn’t the only instance of forced sterilization in America. 

The legacy of eugenics still exists today, and it’s something we should be vigilant about in our society. The documentary does a wonderful job celebrating the successes, such as the passing of SB-1135, while still recognizing the lack of overall justice for these women. I would recommend that everyone takes the time to learn about the battle these women fought and are still fighting. 

Maddy Erskine can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @maddyerskine_.