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Not Just ICE: a California Prison Sterilized Her and Other Black Women

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Courtesy Idle Wild Films

Kelli Dillon, subject of Belly of the Beast, was given a hysterectomy without her knowledge in a California prison. She opens up about the most painful part of her life.

Cassie da Costa

In one case, Wooten said, a woman who ended up with a hysterectomy was not properly anesthetized and overheard the doctor say that hed taken out the wrong ovary. That woman had to go back and get her other ovary removed as well, reported Vice News. If true, this means that yet again, the U.S. is practicing the science of eugenicsthe idea that it is possible to improve humans by allowing only some people to produce children, as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionaryon its most vulnerable populations.

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In the wake of Wootens complaint, many journalists have commented that there has been a long history of forced sterilizations in the U.S., particularly with Native American and Black women in the early Jim Crow era. But what many commentators dont realize is that Wootens whistleblower complaint is not the only modern example of forced sterilization in detention.

Erika Cohns hugely important film Belly of the Beast, which comes out on PBSs Independent Lens on Nov. 23, follows the decades-long struggle of Kelli Dillon, a Black woman who underwent a sterilization without her knowledge and consent while incarcerated in the Central California Womens Facility, to pass a bill banning these sterilizations and providing reparations to survivors along with protections for whistleblowers. This week, I spoke to Dillonwho is now an activist and program manager advocating for survivors of sexual and domestic violenceCohn, and lawyer and activist Cynthia Chandler to discuss Wootens whistleblower complaint and its connection to what theyve been fighting against since 2000. Immediately, I thought, this is another way that population control and racial discrimination is happening in these types of settings, Dillon told me. This type of thing can keep going on and on because its hidden under medical practices.

From the point of view of these institutions, why change anything when it has been working? Why change what you are doing, if youre still getting the results that youre looking for? she adds. But my question is, if the whole purpose of ICE detention is to detain and then deport, then what is the purpose of performing unnecessary surgeries on these women?

Kelli Dillon in Belly of the Beast

Courtesy Idle Wild Films

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Dillons own story is carefully and painfully traced in Belly of the Beast. At the age of 24, while incarcerated, Dillon was told that she had cysts and would need to have them removed. Months later, Dillon began having menopausal symptoms and lost an extreme amount of weight; she eventually found out that the surgeon had not merely removed cysts, but given her a full hysterectomy. She was never informed by doctors that she received the procedure. Dillon had two toddler sons at the time of her incarceration, and only received five visits during her 15 years in jail; learning that she would not be able to have more children was an incredible blowshe had already been separated, and estranged (for the time being), from her sons, and now would not get a second chance at raising children.

It took a moment for me to actually open up and tell my story because it is the most painful part of my life, Dillon explained. When I think about it, I am choked up. It still comes up in the middle of my throat like a ball to the point where I almost cannot find my voice, even though my voice may seem strong and I seem boisterous and courageousbut that is not what Im feeling on the inside.

It was a mixture of her support from Justice Now and Chandler, who took on her case from the very beginning, that gave Dillon the initial courage to move forward and hold the California State Prison System to account. But if it was not for the film, if it was not for Erikas compassion, her heart, her love, and her vision in wanting to make society aware of this situation, Dillon said, I dont think I would have gotten the platform. And I dont think I wouldve found strength to actually speak.

Being behind the camera allowed me to have the voice firstto say what I needed to say without worrying about what the audience feedback was going to be. And then once I was able to see myself on camera in my own strength, then it made me a little bit more open and ready to tell the world. So I just thank God that Erika provided me the space, the safe space in order to talk about the most sensitive and painful thing in my life.

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Chandler, a prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionist, has dedicated her work as a lawyer to not just advocating for incarcerated people, but working to dismantle the prison system altogether. I think there's sort of two kinds of civil lawyers, Chandler told me. There are lawyers who tinker around with the law and sort of geek out on it. And then theres people who want to affect something and make something happen and theyre changing the law. The reason Erika was able to follow us for so long is that Kelli is a natural storyteller. And my whole way of approaching law has always been to be a storyteller.

But a big part of the story Dillon, Chandler, and Cohn have been telling is one that most of the public has not been open to hearing. What I first thought of when I heard the story about ICE detention was, well, of course thats happening because thats part of what white nationalism does, Chandler explained. Im a huge fan of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, whos a spectacular public intellectual and abolitionist and woman of color. And years ago I had a conversation with her and I said, You know, with doing this sterilization abuse work, I feel like Ive been trying to figure out what Californias doing. Californias always been so avant-garde when it comes to prison policy and practices, and yet they seem almost so retro in how backward they were when everywhere else in the country, lets say 10, 15 years ago, was starting to look at prison reform and sentencing reform. Yet California was like digging its heels in further to mandatory minimums and not going anywhere.

I said, I feel like Im starting to realize what Im seeing might be the rise of neo-fascism, and Ruthie was like, I think youre right. I can see why you would think that and what youre doing, how youre looking at how eugenics is part and parcel to the work that prisons are doing. Youre documenting white nationalism and the rise of white nationalism, but I dont think youre going to get anybody to understand that or believe it now. And this was like 10 to 15 years ago that we were having this conversation.

Dillon herself understood the connection between neo-facsism and the prison system, but she was still in shock when she learned of her hysterectomy. Most African Americans have heard some of the history, she told me. I remember hearing about forced sterilizations through watching Schindlers List and learning about the Holocaust. So I had a little bit of knowledge of it and also about how doctors were sterilizing slaves and performing certain medical experiments on slaves.

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With my own experience of forced sterilization, I immediately could not believe that this was happening in 2000. I thought, this could not be happening in this day and age. And so trying to get other people to really, truly understand the gravity right here, trying to get people to really, truly understand the concept of sterilization a lot of people, as Cynthia said, do not have the knowledge of what that really, truly means. So I think that when you dont have the knowledge of what it truly means, the impact of activism is very limited.

It took until 2014 for the anti-sterilization and reparations bill Dillon and Chandler had been fighting for, for over a decade, to finally be passed in California, yet the work is clearly not over. For Chandler, it used to be difficult to even get other PIC abolitionists as well as members of the prison reform movement (Chandler does not identify as a reformist) to believe forced sterilization was a serious issue. There were times where I had to reduce the entire argument to say, look, it makes women rape-able. And that was the only way that men in the room who were part of the movement could appreciate and take the issue seriouslyout of a space of chivalry. Lately however, Dillon, Chandler, and Cohn have found renewed hope that the new racial justice movement thats underway can transform how we talk about the intersection of state violence and gender oppression.

To me, this sterilization abuse is one of the most fundamental markers of the work that modern imprisonment is doing, which is bolstering the white nationalist movement in our country, Chandler told me. And I do hope that the abolitionist movement sees it as such. I think there are more and more people seeing that. And I hope that people are really starting to look at and challenge fascism and see the significance of this sterilization abuse in that history of fascism replicating itself.

Dillon emphasized that those who support universal human rights cannot ignore incarcerated and detained populations. In Americaand Im sure it can happen in other countries but I can only speak to Americathey find ways to criminalize and villainize certain races of people and marginalized people to give themselves an excuse to incarcerate them, to lock them up, to detain them or to put them away. But once they have detained them and incarcerated them or whatever theyve done, then they act out these dirty little practices in order to remove the unwanted, the outcast, the most vulnerable populations, to get them out the way.

So its not so much that these things happen mostly in prison, but that it almost seems that prison and detention centers and even mental health facilities were actually created to make sure that these things happen, whether theyre slavery or forced labor or medical practices and experimentations like mass hysterectomies and forced sterilizations.

Read more on: thedailybeast, women


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