Susanville, California is one of hundreds of American prison towns.
What happens when a struggling rural community tries to revive its economy by inviting prisons in? The story of four families living in a modern-day prison town, as told in Prison Town, USA, is a riveting look at one of the most striking phenomena of our times: a prison-building and incarceration boom unprecedented in American history.
The Tyler family was just passing through Susanville, California, when father Lonnie was arrested for shoplifting $40 worth of groceries and diapers. Lonnie got a 16-month sentence, leaving his wife Jen and their kids stranded in “prison town.” Dawayne Brasher worked in Susanville’s lumber mills for nearly 20 years until the last one closed in 2004. His only choices were to leave his hometown or seek work at the huge prison complexes that have sprung up in the area. Gabe Jones liked his job at Mike O’Kelly’s Morning Glory Dairy, but the prospect of earning much more money as a prison guard finally proved irresistible — sending him off to guard academy. O’Kelly, a third-generation dairyman, finds his business endangered when the prisons threaten to abrogate their “good neighbor” buy-local policy.
Stories like these are increasingly common in rural America where, during the 1990s, a prison opened every 15 days. The United States now has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people per capita than any other country in the world. Yet this astonishing jailing of America has been little noted because many of the prisons have opened in remote areas like Susanville. Prison Town, USA examines one of the country’s biggest prison towns, a place where a new correctional economy encompasses not only prisoners, guards and their families, but the whole community.
Nestled in the picturesque foothills of the California Sierras, Susanville once thrived on logging, ranching and agriculture. Even today, the town offers a postcard image of small-town America under majestic peaks — if you keep the prisons out of the frame. Susanville, along with much of rural America, has seen its local agricultural economy go the way of the family farm. And like other communities that don’t want to become ghost towns, Susanville decided to take a chance on the only industry that came calling — California’s burgeoning prison system, hungry for space, new guards and low visibility.
The town was promised jobs and a large institutional buyer for local services. Today the Susanville area hosts three prison complexes housing more than 11,000 inmates, with plans for more to come. The inmate population is more than one-and-a-half times the number of local residents.
Prison Town, USA follows the fortunes of Dawayne, Gabe, Mike, Lonnie and their families over the course of two years, weaving in a chorus of voices from other townspeople along the way. The resulting story is one of hard choices and unanticipated consequences. As Susanville’s good-hearted country-boys-turned-prison-guards soon learn, life outside the walls is developing eerie parallels to life on the inside.
As locals are quick to point out, no one grows up dreaming of becoming a prison guard, but the high pay and benefits of corrections work, especially by rural standards, are irresistible. At correctional officer training academy, Dawayne and Gabe have to learn new skills and attitudes, often quite foreign to their upbringing. Besides the obvious dangers of the job, the constant tension spills into the guards’ home lives, changing how they relate to their families and friends. In a sense they, too, are imprisoned — a reality that is hard to shake once they leave work. High rates of substance and domestic abuse are well-known hazards of the profession.
The correctional facilities also introduce new divisions in this once tight-knit community. Tensions arise between those who work for the prisons and those who don’t, between locals and prisoners’ family members and between prison employees and paroled former inmates. That’s where Lonnie and Jen’s travails take a twist that must call into question the underpinnings of the prison boom itself. Sixteen months in prison for a $40 larceny might seem excessive — and excessively expensive for the taxpayer. The cost is even higher for the struggling couple and their children — the kids not only lose their father, but are taken away from their temporarily homeless mother and put in foster care.
With the help of Crossroads Ministries, a local group that assists families of prisoners, Jen manages to recover the children and rent a small hom whiel she awaits Lonnie’s release. Lonnie gets out on parole after nine months — but is forced to serve that parole in Susanville. Now he must somehow find work in a town where there are few jobs outside the prisons, while living under the strict scrutiny of his parole officer, where the smallest infraction can send him back to prison.
Meanwhile, Mike O’Kelly mounts a campaign to stop Prison Industries from forcing the prisons to cancel their contracts with Morning Glory Dairy, which relies on the account for more than a quarter of its business. The other local merchants, who face similar consequences from Prison Industries, are sympathetic. But the people of Susanville seem to have little power against the economic and political behemoth that the corrections industry has become in California. Mike is only able to win a reprieve, extending his contract through June 2007.
Prison Town, USA lays bare the economic and political dynamics behind the prison-building frenzy that is changing the landscape of rural America, shedding light on some of the little-understood human costs of the nation’s criminal-justice policies.
“There are now over 7 million people incarcerated, on probation or on parole in the United States,” says co-director Katie Galloway. “We hope this film will awaken people to the real consequences of prison expansion, particularly in rural areas that have been so important in forming the history and character of California and the country.”
“Across the country prisons are transforming our economy, psychology and culture,” says co-director Po Kutchins. “We hope our film promotes much-needed dialogue about the wisdom of America’s policies.”