Works of Justice Podcast: Erika Cohn
This interview is part of Works of Justice, an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program. Works of Justice reflects on the relationship between writing and incarceration and presents challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.
On March 15, 2021, our program had the honor of hosting a screening of Belly of the Beast, a 2020 documentary directed by Erika Cohn. Cohn is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director and producer, and cofounder of Idle Wild Films, Inc. Filmed, researched, and produced over seven years, Belly of the Beast exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California women’s prisons.
Our Prison and Justice Writing team had the opportunity to watch Belly of the Beast in this private screening for our Prison Writing mentor community, and we came away harrowed, captivated, and moved. It was a true pleasure and profound learning experience to listen to the post-screening conversation between Cohn and Mery Concepción, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing volunteer program coordinator, to dive in with the director beyond the film’s content and explore the technical and creative processes behind it. In fact, the dialogue is so valuable, we decided to bring it to a wider audience through this Works of Justice Podcast episode.
The film itself centers the narrative of Kelli Dillon, who—incarcerated at the age of 19 as a survivor of domestic and gang violence—was sterilized without her knowledge or consent. Dillon is now the co-chairperson of the Empowerment Congress Southeast Area Neighborhood Development Council, where she advocates for violence prevention and intervention programs. Belly of the Beast explores Dillon’s personal and advocacy relationship with Cynthia Chandler, a social entrepreneur, activist, academic, and attorney who focuses on human and health rights for vulnerable populations.
In this interview, Cohn and Concepción spoke about the implications of forced sterilization behind bars, how incarceration is itself a tool for eugenics and population control, and the challenges of defining consent in a space characterized by its lack of autonomy. They also discussed what it means to produce a trauma-informed film, and how to navigate and think creatively about obstacles presented by censorship and lack of access to information.
We hope you find this conversation as moving as we did. We encourage you to learn more about and support Belly of the Beast by watching and sharing the film.
MERY CONCEPCIÓN: Like everyone said, this film hit me really hard when I watched it. It touches on themes of eugenics and sterilization, population control, medical consent. All of these themes were really central to your retelling of the California Department of Corrections’ crimes against women in this film.
I was really impressed with how you were able to unravel all of these different, really huge systems through your directing and your storytelling. Could you talk a bit about what that process of selecting the narratives and individuals you would follow? We know that the story really centers around Kelly and Cynthia and the work of Justice Now.
ERIKA COHN: First of all, thank you so much for that introduction. And thank you for sharing a bit about who each of you are. I’m just so honored to be in your presence and the amazing work that you do. So thank you for hosting this conversation.
I think it might be helpful to go back in time: how I started the subject matter. I had the opportunity to meet Cynthia Chandler in 2010 through a mutual friend and was so incredibly inspired by her compassionate release work. She was the first attorney in California to get someone out of prison under compassionate release. And she had also co-founded Justice Now, which at the time, was an incredibly revolutionary organization. Still, the thought of having board members currently incarcerated really informing strategy and informing policy from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in—which is the way that so many organizations work—and really centering those who are directly impacted in the decision-making, is so critical to the way that we all should be doing our advocacy.
They had a campaign specifically called the “Let Our Families Have a Future” campaign, which essentially exposed the multiple ways that prisons destroy the basic fundamental human right to family—one of the most heinous, of course, being the illegal sterilizations, primarily targeting women of color.
To me, immediately that screamed eugenics. As a Jewish woman, the phrase “never again” was always in the back of my mind. When I learned about this different kind of genocide that was happening through imprisonment through forced sterilization behind bars, I knew that I wanted to get involved some way, somehow, and to really work collaboratively in challenging modern-day eugenics.
And so, the initial idea came from my direct service work. I became a volunteer legal advocate providing direct services for over 150 people inside California’s women’s prisons. From that work, I began collaborating with people inside on a project that would ultimately become Belly of the Beast.
The incredible human rights documentation work that happens inside prison was something to really document and something to really chronicle. Because when we think of prisons, I mean they are incredibly heinous, incredibly punitive places, but there’s also so much beauty and so much power and so much resilience that can at the same time be highlighted while critiquing that system. Really centering and empowering the voices of those who are doing this incredible work, who often don’t get recognized for the incredible activism that they are doing.
“The incredible human rights documentation work that happens inside prison was something to really document and something to really chronicle. Because when we think of prisons, I mean they are incredibly heinous, incredibly punitive places, but there’s also so much beauty and so much power and so much resilience that can at the same time be highlighted while critiquing that system. Really centering and empowering the voices of those who are doing this incredible work, who often don’t get recognized for the incredible activism that they are doing.”
And so, the idea was really to chronicle that work and to be able to document how the human rights abuses that they were uncovering, how this information was funneled out through this underground system of activists, because the prison of course didn’t want this information getting out, didn’t want this information exposed.
That changed a bit after I had the opportunity to meet Kelly. We met a couple of years into the process, and at the time I met her, she was working as the incredible community interventionist that she is in Los Angeles, doing gang intervention work and domestic violence prevention work. At that point in her life, she had really set the sterilization issue aside, was very much focused on her own career, community empowerment, establishing her own nonprofit—but wanted to support this project behind the scenes.
Kelly’s involvement as an advisor, in those early years, was critical. We talked a lot about how to establish that kind of transparency between free-world populations and incarcerated populations, and how to really tell this story in a way that placed audiences in these visceral, vulnerable, uncomfortable places. And how to really break down these stereotypes and the misinformation that we are fed about imprisonment. And how imprisonment is often depicted in this overdramatized, sensationalized way. About a couple of years after that, The Center for Investigative Reporting launched their investigation and released a very controversial series of articles, reporting done by Corey Johnson.
That made a huge splash. For the first time, this was the national conversation. For the first time, there was really potential for legislation, potential for hearings. And Kelly got called in to testify yet again on behalf of so many other people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to testify and to really advocate not only for herself, but others.
That was the moment that Kelly and I decided we would begin filming, leading up to the process when she testifies for the first time in front of the California State Senate. The more and more we filmed, the clearer it became that the film really needed to center around her story and her relationship with attorney Cynthia Chandler, because if it wasn’t for Kelly in the first place, we wouldn’t even be here today. There wouldn’t be a film. There wouldn’t have been The Center for Investigative Reporting work. This issue wouldn’t be uncovered. And so, it’s really thanks to her and her selfless advocacy for not only her, but others, and uncovering this and working diligently to get to the root of these systemic issues.
There wouldn’t be a film. There wouldn’t be a story.
“One of the important parts of making this film was that it was really survivor-led. If a survivor wanted to speak about what happened to them and then decided two sentences in that they weren’t interested in speaking more. . . that was okay. There was a timeframe that enabled the film to have the breadth and the depth and the space to provide an experience that allowed people to continuously think about what it meant to participate, decide if they wanted to participate, and then decide at the very end if they wanted to have what they participated in be featured in the film.“
CONCEPCIÓN: That really gets at the heart of my next question, which is about Kelly herself. Just through the screen, you can feel she’s just this amazing person. I was really struck by the way that we got to see her throughout time. I think the sense of time in the film also was just—this is years and years of someone’s life. And having to retell her story to different doctors, lawyers, in her home, being in a courtroom again and again, in all these different circumstances, it made me think a lot about, for survivors of violence, retelling your story oftentimes means reliving your trauma. I was curious with a film that obviously touches so much on centering survivors and their agency, how the film was able to create a space for her to relive that safely and support her through that, knowing that she was a huge part of the film and of having to tell her story.
COHN: One of the things that Kelly often talks about is that yes, every time she tells the story it’s retraumatizing, and ideally the film lives on so that Kelly doesn’t continuously need to talk about it. The trailer lives on as a way for people who don’t have the time to watch the film to get a brief snippet of what happened, so that it’s not the continuous retelling of that trauma—and so that also perhaps other survivors don’t need to retell their trauma as well.
One of the important parts of making this film was that it was really survivor-led. If a survivor wanted to speak about what happened to them and then decided two sentences in that they weren’t interested in speaking more, that they ultimately at the last minute wanted to not be featured in the film—or wanted to at the last minute add something in the film—that was okay. There was a timeframe that enabled the film to have the breadth and the depth and the space to provide an experience that allowed people to continuously think about what it meant to participate, decide if they wanted to participate, and then decide at the very end if they wanted to have what they participated in be featured in the film.
Up until the very last moment, we were corresponding with folks inside about how they wanted to be listed in the credits: if they wanted to even be listed at all, or if they wanted to have a pseudonym or remain anonymous, or if they were comfortable with ultimately what ended up in the film. That’s, I think, incredibly important in telling these stories. As Kelly describes it, it’s being trauma-informed and really, throughout the process, centering the experiences of those who are directly impacted and holding that to bear.
“We rarely talk about imprisonment as a form of genocide and as a form of eugenics in itself. And when you look at who is being locked up with increasingly long sentences, imprisonment is a form of sterilization in itself. You are therefore preventing a certain individual from the ability to have a family—because you’re locking someone up for their reproductive capacity, they are therefore unable to reproduce.”
CONCEPCIÓN: Definitely. I think that really shone through, and even hearing about that stuff behind the scenes is really empowering. As people who work with writers, we’re oftentimes holding people’s stories quite literally, and having to be in that space of, “How do we help you do what you need to do and make sure that you can communicate that with us, without stepping on anyone’s toes?” And again, with the idea of trauma-informed also going along with this idea of agency. So thank you.
For me, where I learned a lot outside of the particular narratives was also getting to hear more about women in prison and women’s prisons. The fact that this story really centers around one of the biggest, if not the biggest, prison for women in California.
The statistic of women of color being the fastest growing population in America. Even when so many narratives around mass incarceration center around men, center on men who are convicted of drug offenses and violent crimes—this idea of the war on drugs. And this film hones in on the fact that among even these women, the majority of them are survivors of domestic violence and gender-based violence. 92 percent is an insane statistic. It just made me wonder, why is this not the story of mass incarceration all along? Why is it that in the story of talking about this systemic oppression, even in that story about the margin, women are still marginalized? I’m just wondering about your take on that.
COHN: Yeah, that’s why Justice Now’s work was so revolutionary in the beginning. It was at the intersection of gender justice, racial justice, and prison abolition. And you see the implications of how even reform efforts create a ripple effect, of how there’s retaliation that folks experience inside.
And then you have to pass new legislation to help remedy the retaliation. And then you have to pass new legislation to fix that legislation. It’s this consistent cycle of how the system is so broken and it doesn’t work. When we talk about imprisonment and mass incarceration, I think oftentimes obviously women and transgender people are often left out of the conversation.
Even taking that a step farther, we rarely talk about imprisonment as a form of genocide and as a form of eugenics in itself. And when you look at who is being locked up with increasingly long sentences, imprisonment is a form of sterilization in itself. You are therefore preventing a certain individual from the ability to have a family—because you’re locking someone up for their reproductive capacity, they are therefore unable to reproduce.
That all comes back to eugenics. Recently in the news, the Kenosha sheriff last fall referred to imprisonment as a form of keeping Black men from having children. These are what we are seeing today in our society: policing, imprisonment, access to healthcare. This is modern-day eugenics at work. And our prison system is a perfect example of how this still operates.
“There’s actually this concerted movement to think of folks that are incarcerated as undeserving of health and undeserving of their well-being being prioritized by the people who are supposed to be taking care of them while they serve out some kind of term that’s about justice. Whether or not we believe that, the reality is that people are under the care of the state, and the state is actively failing them when it comes to protecting them from so many things.”
CONCEPCIÓN: Definitely. I also wanted to bring in the issues around COVID in prisons, because it’s something that we’ve actually been really thinking about on our team. We have this newsletter called Temperature Check, a rapid response on COVID in prisons. The latest issue just went out, and it’s all about the vaccination rollout. We’ve been covering a lot of the mismanagement around containing COVID, treating COVID, even people being able to tell their family members if they’re sick, or recover and then get reinfected—these really horrible stories coming out of prisons all over the country.
We’re able to see that this idea of modern-day eugenics in prisons isn’t just some theory and it isn’t this thing that’s just about sterilization in California. There’s actually this concerted movement to think of folks that are incarcerated as undeserving of health and undeserving of their well-being being prioritized by the people who are supposed to be taking care of them while they serve out some kind of term that’s about justice. Whether or not we believe that, the reality is that people are under the care of the state, and the state is actively failing them when it comes to protecting them from so many things. It made me think again, this convergence of the two things: What does the future of healthcare in prison look like? Are prisons sustainable in any way? Is it ultimately a death trap?
COHN: Yeah, you bring up a really good point.
When we talk about access to health care during the pandemic, in the free world, it’s challenging. It’s very clear that certain populations have access to health care, and certain populations don’t—it’s modern-day eugenics at work. And then you multiply that by a hundred. That’s what you’re seeing play out in prisons today.
Society doesn’t value people who are locked up. Society uses imprisonment for any and all social problems and then doesn’t give people inside access to basic human rights. I mean, this is a fundamental human right. We are not talking about excellent health care. We are talking about adequate health care, and not even that is being met. What’s happening in prisons today is heinous. The amount of people who are dying in prison as a result of COVID is heinous. It’s preventable. You said prisons as a “death trap”—I don’t believe our prison system works. I don’t believe that our reform efforts to better health care inside prison will ultimately work.
I don’t believe that this system is just, and I don’t believe this system can be reformed.
“Society doesn’t value people who are locked up. Society uses imprisonment for any and all social problems and then doesn’t give people inside access to basic human rights. . . I don’t believe our prison system works. I don’t believe that our reform efforts to better health care inside prison will ultimately work. I don’t believe that this system is just, and I don’t believe this system can be reformed.”
CONCEPCIÓN: No, definitely. One of the things that we talk about in this Temperature Check issue is this idea of decarceration having to be one of the approaches for responding to a public health crisis, and how that actually has to be an integral part. Not just thinking about, “How do we get more vaccines out? How quickly can we get people vaccinated?” But actually releasing people from prison can save someone’s life. If this is something that we know is true, doesn’t that mean that you have a moral duty to do that?
COHN: Absolutely. I think this is the first time that the conversation of abolition has been really a part of our language. “Decarcerate.” We didn’t really start having these conversations before the pandemic. And I hope these conversations continue to happen beyond the pandemic as well.
CONCEPCIÓN: Definitely. I think it’s really coming at a time when things have reached a fever pitch, and the film really takes you through the fact that this has actually always been happening.
For me, it was really jarring to see—obviously the film takes place over seven years. And we see in the early 2000s, that first clip of Kelly—the filmed video of her recounting her story from that point on. It’s so jarring to see her go through all of these changes and have her life circumstances change, get out of prison, be with her sons again. And all of this is still happening to her. To see her in 2019, all of this is still happening to her. It really sets in stone that idea of, “Yeah, these systems are really failing,” and people’s lives get caught up there for 10, 15, 20 years, if not more.
So my next question was actually about that, in particular, to the fact that it was filmed over seven years. I am not a documentary wiz or film person in the technical sense, but I was really interested in what it was like to make a film through the walls. In our work, we’re no strangers to the difficulty of access and transparency and prisons, even when unrelated to issues like health care. So I’m curious about what that process was like, and what did that entail?
COHN: Yeah, that’s a really good question.
This has been a decade in the making: seven years of active filming and over a decade of reporting and research and development and editing. There were so many twists and turns in this entire process. One of the things that was so important about making this film is that it was always made in collaboration with and for people in prison.
What that meant from day one was ensuring that people inside would have access to the film. And the only way that folks inside would have access to this film is through a PBS broadcast. As many people know, PBS is one of the only consistent channels that people inside prison have access to.
“One of the things that was so important about making this film is that it was always made in collaboration with and for people in prison. What that meant from day one was ensuring that people inside would have access to the film. . . So we had to find a way to make that happen.”
So we had to find a way to make that happen. We had to find a way to ensure that the campaign to end sterilization abuse would be preserved, had to find a way that people’s legal cases could continue, that their privacy would be respected. The potential for retaliation was always a central conversation. Major creative conversations about how we were going to show this world behind walls that we didn’t have access to or continuously had throughout the process. Continuous consent, continuous conversations about how this film would look and feel.
Even down to who would be the musical voice of the film. If you could have anyone be the musical voice in this film, who would it be? And everyone hands down said Mary J. Blige. So then, we had to figure out a way to get Mary J. Blige involved, which was a beautiful story in itself.
But always, always being creatively imaginative about how to communicate with folks inside, and through my legal advocacy work, I was very much in touch with folks who were involved with the film and who weren’t, how to make a film creatively within and for people inside prison, and then how to distribute that.
We’re still thinking of innovative ways of how the film can live on within prisons across the U.S. But I will say that some of the challenges surrounding access actually provided us with a creative opportunity to reimagine how we visualize imprisonment, and to really use imagery that contrasts in freedom and confinement and memory and passage of time.
Because our team didn’t have access to some of the spaces, like an interior cell or an interior doctor’s office at the prison or a surgical room where the sterilizations were taking place, we had the ability to shoot it from many different ways and to recreate this environment, which would enable audiences to be placed in these vulnerable and uncomfortable spaces.
What it would feel like to be handcuffed to a gurney, being wheeled into a surgical operating room. What it would feel like to be naked, waiting to be examined by a doctor, who is employed by the prison where your daily existence is threatened by force. Your legs are dangling from this exam room table, so vulnerable, so intimate.
And it really begs the question: Is informed consent even possible within these coercive environments?
And so, those are the creative opportunities that actually came from these restrictions. At the same time, making this film—because of the lack of transparency, because of the lack of access—was incredibly difficult. Everything had to be fact-checked. Everything had to be bulletproof. Access to medical records, access to reporting, access to documents that were essential, getting those near impossible.
The statistic that you see in the film: 1400 sterilizations performed between 1997 and 2013, that took us years to get. That took us years. And in concluding the film, a lot of times people want to know, is this happening in other states? We sent Freedom of Information Act requests to dozens of states across the country and of course got a lot of responses back: “We don’t carry this information or we don’t have access to this information.” But we know of at least eight other states that allow sterilization procedures under certain circumstances. And in speaking with other organizations across the country that do direct service work with people inside women’s prisons, we know that this is happening, but we don’t know to what degree because of the layers of secrecy and privacy that these institutions are able to hide behind.
“We had the ability to shoot it from many different ways and to recreate this environment, which would enable audiences to be placed in these vulnerable and uncomfortable spaces. What it would feel like to be handcuffed to a gurney, being wheeled into a surgical operating room. What it would feel like to be naked, waiting to be examined by a doctor, who is employed by the prison where your daily existence is threatened by force. Your legs are dangling from this exam room table, so vulnerable, so intimate. And it really begs the question: Is informed consent even possible within these coercive environments?”
CONCEPCIÓN: It was so jarring for me to see that scene that you were just describing where people’s legs were dangling from, in front of an exam room. It’s one of those moments where you really see the visual of the phrase, “People being more than their number,” and how the state tries to really dehumanize folks in big and small ways. A visual like that is so universal, because who hasn’t sat at a medical table in that way?
I completely agree with a lot of the complexity that the film really brought around this idea of consent. I remember one of the scenes where they’re going over, “Well, did you tell the women that you were going to do this? Did you get consent for only if they’ve found cancer cells?” All of these different stipulations and everyone’s dancing around the idea of, “Is this even a setting where people are safe enough to know what their consent would mean, or if they’re even allowed to consent?”
These ideas about who is keeping you safe. If you say no, will there be retaliation? Does that doctor actually even care about your well-being if they’re employed by the same folks that are profiting off of your imprisonment and thinking about you as part of a budget? That was super jarring—this idea that the state needs to save money, so somehow that logic gets trickled down into, “Let’s do all these forced sterilizations.” Who ends up being on the chopping block in a state? It’s just a crazy situation.
CONCEPCIÓN: But I did want to talk about the end of the film a little bit—or what was one of the ends of the film, which is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s when we get to see Kelly at her first graduation—she talks about not being able to have that moment at all these other benchmarks, but getting to celebrate with her family.
We get to see her joyous in a film that is not joyous in a lot of ways. I was wondering why it felt important to include that in the place that it was. And that’s not the end of the film, but again, it felt to me like the culmination of something really important with Kelly’s character, who I got very attached to throughout the film. I was just ecstatic to see her get that moment, especially with her sons.
COHN: For me, the film could have been three and a half, four, five hours. I’ll be honest, I was very attached to the first few cuts of the film because I thought it was very important to show. In the deposition footage that you were referencing earlier, one of the most poignant moments is Kelly asks, “Can I hope?” They say, “Do you have plans after—what are your plans for the future?” And she said, “Can I hope?”
That just goes to the immense dehumanization that people in prison experience, that she would even have to question, “Can I hope?”
But from an early age, Kelly knew—you hear her talk about how she wants to work with people who have been impacted by domestic violence, and she wants to help young teens and also reconnect with her family. Then you see her doing what she intended to do, and imprisonment took her on a detour. The prison system is meant to break people down. It is meant to stop people. It is meant to say, “Your life is not valued.” And to have someone who is really continuing despite that tremendous dehumanization, and to have someone who is such a brilliant spark of life and support for so many other people and an advocate for so many other people. That’s what she’s dedicated her life to.
“In the deposition footage, one of the most poignant moments is Kelly asks, ‘Can I hope?’ They say, ‘Do you have plans after—what are your plans for the future?’ And she said, ‘Can I hope?’
That just goes to the immense dehumanization that people in prison experience, that she would even have to question, ‘Can I hope?’”
To see her experience that joy that had been taken—tried to be taken away from her. The ability to experience success and joy in life. That’s essential. She is not just a name. She is not just a number. She’s an incredible individual who—I mean, an entire film could be made on the amazing life that she leads and how she inspires others.
Kelly’s brilliant. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the film, too, watching her achieve and experience and celebrate. Celebrate so much despite how many challenges she faced.
CONCEPCIÓN: Definitely. I think it ended on a kind of aspirational note in a lot of ways with the chunk that came after: her saying, “We’re going to continue this fight; this isn’t the only state that this is happening in.”
I love also the scene where Cynthia is talking about how this is a culmination of a lot of her work at Justice Now. It does feel like getting the bill passed was an end for them and for their work.
But part of the work is also leaving something for other people to pick up. So knowing that this goes on for a really long time, but our lives are finite. There was something that I really loved, too, about getting to see that this is one film and we could have an infinite number of films about all of the work that people are doing in similar organizations. And really just holding it down for each other for a decade, working on something like this. It was really inspiring, and I really loved that.
A closing question: I was wondering if you’ve been working on any other projects during the pandemic or since the film. What’s next?
COHN: Thank you for that. I just have to say, back to your previous question, it was so important. The bill passing was a celebration. It was a culmination of a lot of work. And as you mentioned, it’s not the end. Kelly’s graduation is a culmination of a lot of work, but it’s not the end, and it’s not her happy ending.
And the reality is she hasn’t received her happy ending. It’s not a happy ending. So while the film couldn’t be wrapped up neatly with a bow, there were celebratory moments and we needed to inspire people to help join this fight. It’s not just Kelly, it’s not just Cynthia doing this David and Goliath battle against the Department of Corrections. It’s all of us. It’s all of us who need to get involved in challenging modern-day eugenics and white supremacy.
And it was important—you asked, “Why was that not the ending?” Because the fight continues. You see the effects of this reform effort, the bill being passed, people inside experience retaliation, denial of any reproductive health care. This is the reality in which we live. And this is the reality in which the system functions. I think that leaving people with a hope for reparations, which really is key for accountability, ensures that these abuses don’t continue to occur by holding the state and state actors accountable for this violence and these heinous human rights abuses.
If folks are interested in getting involved in the reparations movement, they can actually sign the petition for reparations on our website. Having this film being released in this time has been incredibly urgent, timely, and inspiring for a lot of reasons, because I think as we’re examining modern-day eugenics and systemic and institutionalized racism from so many different angles, this film really speaks to that as a part of the broader conversation that highlights these injustices and calls for immediate reparation.
This has been primarily my focus. I had the ability to create a beautiful short film in collaboration with a family. After 15 years of housing instability, they secured an apartment in San Francisco at the eve of the pandemic. The film plays as a love poem to these parents, children, young parents, and their children as a kind of offering during this time. And that’s been very beautiful and will be released soon. It’s called What You’ll Remember.
CONCEPCIÓN: Amazing. Thank you so much, Erika, for coming tonight and for sharing so candidly about the film and the process. This has been wonderful, and I will be recommending this film to everyone that I know, as I already have. I think it’s really phenomenal. And, as you said, super timely for everything that’s happening. Thank you so much.
COHN: Thank you. This was lovely. I so appreciate you having me on.