While working on criminal justice related documentaries over the last decade, we began to notice a strange new phenomenon — the rural prison town. Hundreds have sprung up across the country since the early ’80s — yet, strangely, there seems to be little information in the mainstream media about them. But we had many questions: What did townspeople hope for when they invited prisons in? How were inmates’ relatives treated by the communities? Had prisons helped or hurt rural economies? What kind of bargain had these towns struck?
We explored these questions and more during the four years it took to make our film. We chose to focus on Susanville, a traditional ranching community in Northern California — which is also one of the country’s biggest de facto penal colonies. The area is home to three prisons and has far more inmates than free people. About half of the town’s unincarcerated adults work at the prisons and, by all accounts, the correctional industry has changed their lives radically. Ranchers routinely trade their boots and spurs for mace and khaki greens to go to their night jobs. Cows graze next to high-wattage barbed wire that could kill a man three times over. Once a laid-back country community, people now feel that the town is permeated by the tension that pervades the prisons, and they complain that it has become a police state. “Susanville: Come on vacation, leave on probation” is the local motto.
Initially we encountered the suspicion and mistrust common in prison towns. When we began filming, people were either afraid to talk or would speak openly off the record but then shut down when the camera went on. Eventually, however, a great number opened up to us in profound and intimate ways.
Over the years, we met and interviewed hundreds of people and watched them confront issues that emerge in a culture and economy built on incarceration. Besides our main characters — a laid-off mill worker who has no choice but to work at the prison, a Susanville prisoner and his family struggling to survive in the town, a local dairy owner fighting the prison system to save his family business, and a young dad and his family hoping to cash in on the lucrative life of a correctional officer — we also filmed many others over the years: old-time ranchers, high school students, seasoned correctional officers, local politicians, town social workers and probation officers. All had strong feelings, many had conflicting perceptions and few were happy with what had become of their town. All of the people we met helped us better understand the impact of this industry that is radically altering the landscape of rural America.
We hope our film puts a human face on issues that may seem far removed from the lives of most Americans but in fact affect us all. The United States now incarcerates well over 2 million people — more than any other country in the world. Across the nation, prisons are transforming our economy, psychology and culture. We hope our film sheds light on this transformation and promotes much-needed dialogue about the wisdom of America’s policy of mass incarceration.
— Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins, filmmakers