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Lucy alumna Cynthia, social justice entrepreneur and activist attorney, talks about her work in human rights violations

Cynthia (MPhil Criminology 1993) has over 25 years’ experience as a social entrepreneur, activist, academic and attorney. She co-founded and built several innovative social justice organisations. She has coached dozens of social entrepreneurs in building innovative and successful ventures, as well as law practices. As an attorney, her practice is equally innovative: when law does not allow the relief she seeks for her clients, she changes it. Cynthia maintains a legislative practice, contributing to key legislation aimed at reducing imprisonment. Cynthia regularly publishes, lectures, and provides legislative testimony on issues related to prison industrial complex abolition, access to justice, and healthcare and reproductive rights in prison. She is currently the Director of BALI, an Oakland, California-based, social-mission, legal incubator to accelerate the launch of affordable, community law practices, and an adjunct professor at Berkeley Law. She has received numerous awards for her innovative legal work, including just being awarded the distinguished American Bar Association's Pro Bono Publico Award for her career-long commitment to representation of disenfranchised people. 

“When I got out of college, I wanted to do work challenging human rights abuses against people who were targeted for imprisonment and at the time, back in 1990, there was really no one in the world studying women who were criminalised as opposed to women as victims in the criminological field, except for at Cambridge.

To be able to study how women were disenfranchised and outcasted through criminalisation was a great opportunity. This is what brought me to England. There were two faculty members at the time in the criminology department who were studying how women were criminalized and I wanted the chance to work with those academics.

I chose Lucy Cavendish (it was my first choice of Colleges at Cambridge) because I was really serious about my studies and wanted to be in an environment that was supportive of me as a feminist scholar, and being in a mature women's college struck me as a great place to do that. I knew I would be surrounded by other women who are also serious about their education and their professional development. I was so happy to be in a space that was holding up women within the university once I got there. I loved my experience at Lucy and I learned an enormous amount from my fellow students, and also from my colleagues in the department where I was studying.

The experience set me up with tools that I have used ever since.”

Cynthia spent much of the last 20 years documenting California’s illegal policy of coercive sterilization of women in prison through 2012, and drafting successful ameliorative legislation to stop this abuse. The film featuring Cynthia’s research, by Erika Cohn, premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2020 and has been nominated for a Peabody Award. Filmed over seven years with extraordinary access and intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated people, BELLY OF THE BEAST exposes modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice in California prisons.

“The specific research that is behind the film came years after I left England.

After graduating from Cambridge, I went back to the US to attend Law School at Harvard. I wanted to have the most impact working with arguably some of the most vulnerable women in the US society. I ended up starting the first organisation in the world advocating for HIV positive women who are either in prison or facing criminal charges, and I did that work in a very grassroots way, recruiting leaders from within that population, women who were helping keep each other alive in prison, who were living with HIV in prison and who stood out as leaders in that community itself. They became the  triage team and jailhouse lawyers for the organization, and in many ways I learned to be a lawyer being coached by them.

In 2000 we all decided we wanted to do something with a bigger systemic impact and so we merged that organization into what became Justice Now, whose work is the focus of the film. The original volunteer activists from inside prison became the founding board of directors of the organization.

The work that is documented in the film came out of a project that we started when training women in prison (without permission of the California government): we eventually trained about 250 women in prison in California on international human rights law and how to do human rights documentation, and created an underground network of human rights documenters. They could pick the topics that we worked on, they would create the surveys, do the documentation work, and then we would help amplify that work by filing United Nations reports or pushing for legislative reform in California, and in the United States. The first topic that the women wanted to document was how prisons destroy families and communities of colour in the US and how imprisonment itself functions as a form of sterilization by removing women from their communities through their entire reproductive years. We started doing work collaboratively across prison walls, documenting baseline reproductive care and how women's families were being ripped apart.

We were then contacted by a young woman in her early 20s named Kelli Dillon who's the protagonist of the film. She wrote a letter saying that she had a surgery but had no idea what happened as she developed bizarre symptoms. She wanted help to figure out what happened. It took a long time but I finally was able to get copies of her medical records and realized almost right away that she had been sterilized without her knowledge during an unrelated abdominal surgery.

I had to meet her to break this horrible news and obviously she was crushed. She also was astonished by the fact that I, as a white woman, could access and read her medical records and have more information about her body than she did, as a black woman.

Credit to her incredible courage, she decided we needed to share her story. I made a commitment to her, that I would see the process through whatever it was. I couldn't guarantee an outcome but I would do whatever I could to try to find some level of justice for her. We've been working together on this issue for 20 years and have become like family.

We were able to document that California was sterilizing significant numbers of people both during unrelated abdominal surgeries and during labor and delivery. Unaware of the process, women might have a hernia repair and were sterilized without their consent or knowledge. We interviewed hundreds of pregnant women and found out that all of them were being asked if they wanted to be sterilized and none of them gave consent. Yet the state was reporting that they were sterilizing sometimes more than four people a day. We wanted to find out who the women were and if they even knew they were sterilized. This became the basis for reports we  filed with the United Nations and we eventually got media attention and more exposure in California. What they were doing was illegal as maintained by California and Federal Law, but we were able to put in place a protocol to make it much more difficult for the state to get away doing that again. We have been able to document that this kind of sterilization abuse is sadly happening in at least nine different states in the United States.

We were able to document what happened through public record act requests, as in the US one has the right to ask public institutions to provide information on their processes, but because of medical privacy laws they could not disclose the name of who they sterilized. As a result the state was able to hide its own crimes behind privacy laws. We still don't know as of today who the patients were and we don't believe the patients know who they were. We are still working for reparations as well as for notification of the victims. There's no real accountability until that happens. We are hoping that the legislation we are working on in California will be a model that will roll out across the US and provide an international model for what state accountability would look like in cases of eugenic abuse. If people want to be part of the solution they can start by signing this petition as well. My hope is that the film will have a much bigger impact than our story. I hope it will inspire people to realize that we all have power to make significant change in the world. If we stick together and persevere, if we keep going and have grit, we can make change happen.”

Belly of The Beast