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MMP and SJFF partner to Screen “Belly of the Beast” by Matthew Valerie

by September 21, 2021 0

The film, “Belly of the Beast” documents the cases of reproductive injustice in the California women’s correctional systems. The film focuses on the relationship between former inmate Kelli Dillon and her attorney Cynthia Chandler of Justice Now, as they fight for the rights of imprisoned women who have been sterilized against their consent. Although both women have had different upbringings, the film highlights some of their commonalities, such as a desire for justice, the struggles of being women working in the criminal justice system, and the effects their jobs and passions for justice have had on their personal lives outside of their activism.

Kelli herself is a victim of reproductive injustice while she was incarcerated. She was lied to during a medical checkup, was sterilized, and had lasting physical effects. While the film focuses on Kelli’s case of sterilization against her consent, she wasn’t the only woman to be a victim, as California’s women prison has a lengthy track record of officials lacking medical care to inmates, and misusing their authority. The women are seen as less than, which makes them susceptible to such abuse. Many of these women have been sterilized without their consent, with the notion that this will save the state money.

The film also highlights the intersection of these cases of sterilization with the eugenics movement. Reporter Corey Johnson and scholar Dorothy Roberts highlight the history of eugenics in America. Coercive sterilization was legal in most states by the 1930s, with California having the most cases of sterilized people by 20,000. These laws trickled to population control, birth control, and welfare policies targeting mainly women of color. It’s worth noting that these laws weren’t just confined to the United States; they had also been implemented in Puerto Rico.

The incarcerated women have limited resources, making them susceptible to medical abuse. As shown in the film, Kelli and Cynthia are in a legal battle to fight for the rights of incarcerated women who were sterilized against their own will. Cases of medical abuse have been the subject of committee hearings, and yet medical officials responsible for these sterilizations are still given the benefit of the doubt. While there have been laws passed to outlaw sterilizations, the practice still continues, and nobody has been held accountable for this.

Following this screening, Courtney Hooks of Justice Now and Alanna Tritt hosted the discussion. Courtney got involved in the film by being a communications director for Justice Now. A producer for the film approached Cynthia about these sterilization cases, and wanted to make a documentary about it. Courtney stated that being genuinely interested in the story being covered, and recognizing the power dynamic of a “subject” via a journalist, was important to realize. She was skeptical initially because of the media, and the way how the media can negatively frame the topics they are covering, especially if they are related to marginalized communities.

While working on the film, Courtney was also involved in activism. Through Justice Now, legal visits were conducted. Many board members in Justice Now are either currently incarcerated or were formerly incarcerated. Individual needs on behalf of those imprisoned was important, as well as campaigning to get their stories heard, and trying to dismantle related systems that lead to prisons. For Courtney, realizing that the term “human rights” was known around the world, was important for her. Courtney was then asked about how sterilization in prisons could be stopped.

She doesn’t believe in giving the benefit of the doubt towards people working in the prisons who are responsible for these actions. She feels that as a takeaway from the film, she would want people to understand that this is a whole system built off of oppression and slavery of people, and not just one or two bad people.

The bill that was signed, as shown in the film, was to make sterilization illegal.

Justice Now had also wanted to create amnesty for whistleblowers who saw abuse of power in the prison systems, so that they could speak up without repercussions. The bill was revised also wanted to have people getting more than one medical opinion, since medical terms can be misleading or confusing. Following this, Courtney was asked if consent could be clarified. They wanted to raise the issue of human right abuse, while still giving room for the individual to make their own choice of a medical procedure. She said it is possible for them to make their own decision, but there are ways abuse can be done (being under anesthesia, low reading comprehension, don’t speak English, etc)

The subject of violence against prisoners was then raised. Courtney stated that prison can really shorten people’s lifespans, given the abuse they’re faced with. The lack of medical care has long-term effects, as some people Courtney knew died in prison, or shortly after being released. People being locked up their entire reproductive lives, or their entire lives. Being cut off from your family de-stabilizes entire families and communities at large.

Courtney was asked how she felt after seeing the film. She was really proud of the film, in particular, the way the editors gave a first-hand look at the world of prison, as it can be very secretive. She was glad that the film was shown on PBS, given that prisoners already have limited channels to be heard. She was proud that the production gave people a chance to give complex answers to complex questions. She was also glad to see Kelli graduate, given that triumph she had to continue forward in life. That was her favorite part of the film.

In one scene, Kelli is presenting to a panel and introduces herself, among other things, as an inmate, but she doesn’t say anything about having been convicted of murdering her abusive husband. A viewer asked in the comment section, is the avoidance of that ”reason” part of an “inmate culture” you can explain, was it cut, or was it not relevant? Courtney was sure this came up in her case, but she doesn’t remember it being cut from the film. The outcome of the case was that she wasn’t wrong, but had a statute of limitation counted against her, when she woke from anesthesia, and a medical procedure was done on her that she didn’t consent to. Her case was heard in a community who were related to prison officials, leading to her dehumanization. She was seen as her humanity not mattering, especially as a young Black woman.

Following this, a viewer asked why no one was prosecuted, even after sterilization being made illegal? The legal system was not set up to protect someone like her, and the prison system has layers of protecting itself from repercussions. Victims weren’t given the option of having a tubal ligation. This summer, a bill was passed to provide reparations for sterilization abuse. This bill would study the cases of sterilization, and their needs following the procedures.

The last question that was asked was how can people get involved in this work, including people from the outside, and how to shift how prisoners are viewed. Sister Song from Georgia has a petition to get reparations for those who were sterilized. Having conversations, screening the film, especially in indie theaters to screen the film. Coming from a prison abolitionist point of view, she advocates opposing funding, resources, bills and the like that would support the police and the prison system at large, and other related systems. She said this was very important, given the changing demographics of the U.S. Social workers have worked on creating alternative systems so people in crisis wouldn’t have to rely on the current prison system.

For more information on sterilization in prisons, and on how you can get involved, here are some links below:

Social Justice Film Institute –

Fix Democracy First –

Meaningful Movies Project –

Belly of the Beast –

WA Organizations – Civil Survival – & The IF Project –

Freedom Education Project –

The film, “Where Do We Invade Next?”

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