In ‘Belly of the Beast,’ Utah filmmaker examines modern ‘eugenics’ in women’s prisons

Some documentaries take longer to come together than others — a lesson Salt Lake City-born filmmaker Erika Cohn learned as it was happening.

Back in 2010, Cohn began work on “In Football We Trust,” the Emmy-winning documentary she co-directed about young men in Utah’s Polynesian community who used football as a way to change their lives. The movie premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and was seen nationwide in theaters and on PBS.

Also in 2010, she met Cynthia Chandler, the Bay Area activist and attorney who’s one of the main figures in “Belly of the Beast,” which will debut in virtual cinemas — including the Salt Lake Film Society’s SLFS@Home platform — on Friday, before airing on PBS’ “Independent Lens” on Nov. 23. (The Utah Film Center, the documentary’s fiscal sponsor, will have a free online screening Tuesday at 7 p.m., with a post-screening Q&A with Cohn, moderated by Planned Parenthood of Utah. That screening is limited to 150 tickets.)

Chandler was the first attorney to get an inmate dying in a California prison out on “compassionate release,” Cohn said in a phone interview. Chandler is also the co-founder of Justice Now, a Bay Area legal group advocating for women in prison, which “exposed the multiple ways prisons destroy the human right to family,” she said.

“One of the most heinous” methods used in prisons, Cohn said, was the illegal sterilization of inmates, usually women of color.

“When I first found out about that, it just really screamed ‘eugenics’ to me,” Cohn said. “As a Jewish woman, the phrase ‘Never again’ was always in the back of my mind.”

Comparisons to the Nazis, and their efforts to wipe out entire groups of people, are not alarmist. One of the facts Cohn presents in the film is that California was so efficient at eugenics — more than 20,000 women, mostly Indigenous and Latina, were sterilized between 1909 and 1979 — that the Germans visited California in the 1930s to learn their techniques.

More recently, as the film describes, some 1,400 women inmates in California prisons between 1997 and 2013 were sterilized, usually with consent not given or hastily coerced. It was those statistics that Justice Now had documented and was fighting to end.

“I knew that I wanted to get involved,” Cohn said. Chandler invited Cohn to be a volunteer for Justice Now, first editing campaign videos and later becoming a legal advocate, providing services to more than 150 women inmates in California.

(Photo courtesy of PBS) Activist and former inmate Kelli Dillon, right, and lawyer/activist Cynthia Chandler are two of the main figures in director Erika Cohn's documentary "Belly of the Beast," about forced sterilizations in women's prisons.

As a volunteer, Cohn had the idea to film Justice Now’s work, which was to have inmates — members of the group’s board of directors — teach other inmates how to fill out questionnaires about the sterilization they experienced.

“I would be telling the story of how the human rights abuses were being documented,” Cohn said.

That’s how Cohn met Kelli Dillon, a paroled inmate, and “the story angle really changed,” Cohn said. “When I first met Kelli, I was just blown away.”

Dillon, who served 15 years for killing her abusive husband, was 24 when a doctor found cysts in her uterus. Nine months after her surgery, she began having menopausal symptoms and lost more than 100 pounds. Eventually, she would learn that the surgeon removed not only the cysts but gave her a hysterectomy.

When Cohn met Dillon, the former inmate was focused on community activism, particularly as a domestic violence counselor and a gang interventionist. But she had been working behind the scenes, advising Justice Now on the sterilization issue — ultimately working with Chandler to lobby the California Legislature on a bill to end the practice of sterilizing women in that state’s prisons.

(In her research, Cohn found other states had systems similar to California’s. Utah, on the other hand, is one of six states that responded to Cohen’s Freedom of Information Act requests by saying they did not perform sterilizations on inmates or had a ban against the practice.)

When the Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story detailing the number of sterilizations at California’s biggest women’s prison, Dillon “decided at that point that she was, once again, going to dive back into this and be an advocate for others,” Cohn said.

That advocacy included going on camera with Cohn. “The more I filmed with her, the more I felt like the film really needed to center around her story,” Cohn said.

(Photo courtesy of PBS) Activist and former inmate Kelli Dillon, right, flanked by activist Courtney Hooks, testifies before the California Legislature, in a moment captured in director Erika Cohn's documentary "Belly of the Beast," about forced sterilizations in women's prisons.

In the film, Dillon describes the pain of having to retell her story again and again — and Cohn took pains to not make her dredge up bad memories too often.

“She really directed that process in terms she was comfortable with,” Cohn said. “Because we already had that foundation of friendship and collaboration, before she became the focus of the film, there was already that trust in the relationship established. Kelli felt very comfortable saying, ‘No, I don’t want to film right now.’”

Now, Cohn said, “with the film coming out, she doesn’t have to tell her story over and over and over again. … The film stands alone as an opportunity for people to better understand her story.”

Since filming “Belly of the Beast,” Justice Now has shifted its focus toward working “to build a safe, compassionate world without prisons,” according to the group’s mission statement. Chandler is no longer associated with Justice Now, and is now director of the Bay Area Legal Incubator, which helps fledgling lawyers start practices to serve low- and middle-income communities. And Dillon is continuing her work with domestic violence survivors and gang members.

Meanwhile, the issue of forced sterilization hasn’t gone away. In September, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement whistleblower reported a seemingly high number of hysterectomies performed on women in an ICE detention center in Georgia.

“The reports were so eerily similar to what we uncovered in ‘Belly of the Beast,’ it was astounding,” Cohn said. The Georgia story “is not an isolated incident. We have a legacy of forced sterilization in the United States, and this is just one more instance of modern-day eugenics.”

(Photo courtesy of PBS) Salt Lake City-born filmmaker Erika Cohn directed the documentary "Belly of the Beast," about forced sterilizations in women's prisons.

‘Belly of the Beast’

The documentary “Belly of the Beast,” about the forced sterilization of women in California prisons, was directed by Salt Lake City-based filmmaker Erika Cohn.

Where • Online on virtual cinemas nationwide, including Salt Lake Film Society’s SLFS@Home.

When • Starts Friday, Oct. 16.

Running time • 82 minutes.

Television • The documentary will air Nov. 23 on PBS, as part of its “Independent Lens” series.