The Fight for Our Rights: Women, Mass Incarceration, and Criminal Justice

Mass incarceration is not typically discussed in the context of the way it impacts and causes harm to women.

From Erika Cohn’s ‘Belly of the Beast.’ (Courtesy of Idle Wild Films)

On Wednesday, the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California Irvine School of Law and the ACLU of Minnesota co-hosted the first of a four-part series Advancing Women’s Equality: Confronting Barriers to Full Inclusion and Progress—examining how histories of race, sex, immigration and LGBTQ discrimination undermine women’s constitutional equality and status in the U.S.

The program—Women, Mass Incarceration and Criminal Justice–took place on Wednesday, Jan. 13 and comprises a robust discussion about how mass incarceration affects women’s lives, including their reproductive health and rights, featuring:

  • Michele Goodwin, “On the Issues” podcast host and national executive committee member of the ACLU of Minnesota;
  • Aziza Ahmed, professor of law and author of Feminism’s Medicine: Law, Science, Race, and Gender in an Epidemic;
  • Cynthia Chandler, Esq., co-founder of Critical Resistance and Justice Now;
  • special guest Erika Cohn, filmmaker and director, Belly of the Beast.

You can watch it here.

Mass incarceration is a pervasive issue in the United States. However, it is not typically discussed in the context of the way it impacts and causes harm to women and people with uteruses.

“Being incarcerated impacts every aspect of a woman’s life: her ability to receive adequate health care, nutrition and see children,” said Aziza Ahmed, whose forthcoming book documents how women in prison organized to respond to the AIDS crisis. “It negatively impacts the ability of women to enter the work force when they are released and it is a stigma to be incarcerated making every aspect of life more difficult.”

“The incarceration of women is often about the policing of gender and sexuality, not about crimes in the way we might traditionally think about them. Many women are in prison because have fought back an abuser or have been a sex worker. Trans women especially face profiling and harassment from the police often leading to their arrest.”

Abuses against women and people with uteruses who are incarcerated are not new and take on many forms. In Colorado, State Representative Leslie Herod sponsored House Bill 1224 to expressly require free menstrual products for incarcerated persons in jail. Prior to the bill, women reported having to trade sex for access to tampons. If they bled through their clothes, prisoners would get sanctioned.

Rep. Herod says her sister, who was formerly incarcerated, “often had to determine if she was going to use the money that she earned from working in prison, which was about a dollar a day, to buy tampons or to call her kid.”

While women often face violence and human rights abuses behind bars, the issues are typically overshadowed by mass incarceration as it impacts men—though recently, the issue of forced sterilization came back into national consciousness when whistleblower and nurse Dawn Wooten came forward about abuses taking place at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia. These allegations were not so unbelievable in light of forced sterilizations that occurred in California women’s prisons as recently as 2013.

Belly of the Beast, a documentary by Erika Cohn, follows the story of Kelli Dillon, who was forcibly sterilized in a California women’s prison. Kelli Dillon spoke about the challenges in getting information about human rights abuses in women’s prisons out:

“We don’t hear a lot about what’s going on inside women’s prisons because communication is controlled. Prisons control who comes to see you, how long your phone calls are—if you get phone time. … So, if my privilege has been restricted or reduced, it’s really hard to funnel out the information.

“In addition, correctional officers sometimes withhold the mail that’s going out for legal aid or to certain media outlets. Someone in prison has to put their freedom on the line, risking their parole date or potential added time to the sentence they’re already serving, by trying to funnel out information through an underground system to make sure that people in the free world know what’s going on.

“I have found that men are more willing to make these sacrifices, but women have the disadvantage of worrying about our children, our parents. By nature, we are givers of life and preservers of life. If I want to take the chance to get information out, the one thing I’m going to think about is they might not allow me to see my kids, and that might stop me.”

So what do we do about this?

Ms. sat down with Erika Cohn to discuss her film Belly of the Beast; the rampant human rights violations occurring in prisons, jails and detention centers; and what’s next.

It’s important to look at mass incarceration as another form of genocide,” Erika Cohn, Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director and producer, told Ms. “It destroys the basic fundamental human right to family.” (Courtesy of Idle Wild Films)

Mariah Lindsay: To start, I would love to talk to you about what first brought your attention to the issue of forced sterilization in jails, prisons and detention centers?

Erika Cohn: I first came across this through meeting Cynthia Chandler. In 2010, a mutual friend introduced us and I was really inspired by her compassionate release work. She was the first attorney who got someone out of prison under compassionate release in California, and was also really inspired by her organization Justice Now, which was one of the only organizations in the country, if not the only organization, that had board members who are currently incarcerated, informing policy and informing strategy from the inside out as opposed to the outside in.

They had a campaign called “Let Our Families Have a Future,” which essentially exposed the multiple ways that prisons destroy the human right to family, one of the most heinous being, of course, the illegal sterilizations, primarily targeting women of color. And that screamed eugenics to me immediately.

As a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, the phrase “never again” was always profoundly in the back of my mind. When I learned about this different kind of genocide that was happening through imprisonment, through forced sterilizations behind bars, I knew that I wanted to get involved.

Initially, that was as a volunteer. Cynthia invited me into the organization where I became a volunteer legal advocate providing direct service needs for over 150 people in California’s women’s prisons. And from there, I really began collaborating with people inside on a project that would ultimately become Belly of the Beast. A few years later, I was able to meet Kelli Dillon. The film centers completely around her and her story. Initially, the idea prior to meeting Kelli was to really chronicle the incredible human rights documentation work that was going on inside prisons, and to be able to follow kind of how this information got out of the prisons, because the prisons didn’t want anyone to know, didn’t want this issue to be exposed. So following these incredible activists inside and how they were able to get information about these human rights abuses out through this underground network of activists.

That changed when I met Kelli. I had heard about her incredible activism and had actually edited some videos of her talking about what had happened for Justice Now. When I met her, she was working in Los Angeles as a community interventionists doing domestic violence prevention and gang intervention work. At that point, I had really set aside the sterilization abuse issue, and was focusing really on her career, her community, and didn’t want to tell her story, but was very excited that there was a film being made and wanted to be involved behind the scenes. So initially, we started collaborating with Kelli being an advisor to the film.

In 2013, that changed when the Center for Investigative Reporting articles were released. And there was this incredible momentum for the first time national conversation about this, that led to a series of hearings as you see in the film. Ultimately Kelli is called to testify. And that was the moment that Kelli and I decided that we would start filming her experience. And that was also the moment where, Kelli’s and my relationship changed from one of friendship and her advising behind the scenes to her being in front of the camera. And the more and more we filmed it became clear that the film really needed to center around her story and her relationship with Cynthia.

Lindsay: Considering how broadly you entered the carceral space in looking at it with a human rights abuses lens and pulling back from forced sterilization, how do you think that mass incarceration affects women’s lives overall?

Cohn: Well, I think it’s important to look at mass incarceration as another form of genocide. It destroys the basic fundamental human right to family. And with increasingly long sentences, women are locked up throughout their reproductive capacity years, which is another form of sterilization, another form of genocide, when you look at who is being locked up, and how they’re being torn, separated from their families. That’s another form of destroying the basic human right to family.

Lindsay: Would one of the main stories missing from how the public discourse talks about incarceration be that genocide and the separation of families?

Cohn: Yeah, I think a lot of the conversation around prison abolition and prison reform is centered around mass incarceration as it relates to men and men’s prisons. And I think that what’s really missing from the conversation is women’s prisons. Women are the fastest growing prison population. And, of course, women of color are disproportionately impacted by that. I think it’s very important in these conversations that we center the stories of those who are directly impacted and who are currently incarcerated in women’s prisons today.

And yes, absolutely. I think that when we talk about imprisonment, we need to talk about imprisonment as how it destroys the basic human right to family. One of those ways is through intentional sterilization, but also sterilization as a form of, when we lock people up, they’re therefore unable to have children. And I think it was the Kenosha sheriff this fall who talked about imprisonment as a form of sterilization, as a way to keep men from having children.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Lindsay: You talked a little bit about how this information gets out and how easy it is to hide what’s actually happening in prisons. What do you think the barriers to this getting to the general public’s attention are?

Cohn: Well, prisons are retaliatory environments. Behind the scenes, it took a long time to find nurses who would be willing to speak on camera about their experiences, because a lot of people that we spoke to off the record were concerned about potentially losing their pensions. You see that in the case of the very courageous whistleblower Dawn Wooten in the ice detention facility in Georgia who came forward and initially questioned what was happening and faced retaliation. And then again, when she came forward with actually what happened and went public with it.

So when you think of those who are imprisoned absolutely it’s retaliatory. Kelli talks about the retaliation that she faced. If you speak out, especially for women, there’s a tremendous amount of risk because you can get your visitation taken away. Kelli speaks about the difference in speaking out about human rights abuses, for women, or for people in prison in women’s prisons, as opposed to men, because there’s so there’s so much more at risk. And family visitation being taken away, or phone call time is one of those main kind of retaliatory kind of techniques that that prisons use, especially for women, because that’s so devastating.

The difficult thing in talking specifically about the sterilization abuse: in order for someone to be eligible for potential litigation, they have to file a complaint against the person who committed this harm against them. A lot of people don’t do that out of fear of retaliation. If they don’t do that, then they’re not eligible for litigation, according to the Prison Litigation Reform Act. So there’s a lot of people who don’t come forward as a result of shame, trauma, and then out of fear of retaliation.

Lindsay: So there’s both informal and formal mechanisms that prevent people from actually coming forward and from these issues being more at the forefront?

Cohn: Exactly.

Lindsay: In looking at the difficulties in these issues coming to light, and forced sterilization being the focus of the film, what do you hope people will take away from Belly of the Beast, the most important takeaway?

Cohn: There’s a lot of takeaways. I think the most important thing for me is that this is an indication that eugenics is alive and well. We are witnessing systemic racism and population control through policing, through imprisonment, through the immigration detention system, and in this moment, lack of access to health care during the pandemic. I think Belly of the Beast really speaks to the broader issue of eugenics and calls for immediate accountability. One of the ways that we can ensure accountability so that these abuses don’t continue to happen is through reparations. As you see at the end of the film, Kelli and Cynthia are working on a reparations movement in California still today. We actually have a petition on our on our website where people can sign to support the movement to get justice for the survivors.

Lindsay: That’s beautiful. So you kind of got to my last question, too, about what challenges we face in pushing against these harms and what we can be doing. The reparations movement is definitely part of that I imagine.

Cohn: Because I’ve spent the past decade examining these human rights abuses, including the forced sterilization in California’s women’s prisons, as both a volunteer legal advocate and as a filmmaker, I’ve personally experienced the levels of secrecy and privacy that these institutions hide behind.

In one particular instance, I was requesting medical records on behalf of someone who had very similar concerns to Kelli and was wondering if she had been sterilized and it took two years to get this person’s medical records because the prison would send back medical records that would have completely different dates than I had requested or completely blank pages. And this back and forth was absolutely insane. So it makes it incredibly difficult to uncover these abuses of power and state sponsored violence in addition to the retaliatory environment we spoke about earlier.

I think that the only way we will prevent these harms from continuing to happen is: We need accountability for these eugenics practices. We need justice for the survivors, those who have experienced the harm. Safeguards to prevent the future abuses.

I really feel that reparations is a huge component of that, because in California specifically, there already has been acknowledgment and an apology. In 2003, the governor of California apologized for California’s heinous eugenics past, including the illegal sterilizations that at that point were legal because they were through a state sponsored eugenics program between 1909 and 1979. But yet, they were still happening behind bars. And so an apology is not enough, accountability has to happen.

When we hold our institutions and state actors who have committed these harms accountable, I believe that we can prevent future abuses from happening. And not only in California, but I think that the California reparations movement will provide a template for other states to ensure that what just happened in Georgia doesn’t continue to happen.

Take Action

Watch the Belly of the Beast trailer here:

Sign this petition calling for reparations for those forcibly sterilized in California’s women’s prisons.

You may also like:

Our opponents are using the lame duck period—the time between now and when the new president is inaugurated, and a new Congress convenes—to do as much damage as they can. Help ensure Ms. remains strong and independent during this period of challenge and change. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin."