Filmmaker Interview

POV: Describe your film for us.

Po Kutchins: Prison Town, USA is a film about an iconic western town that's become a modern-day penal colony. It's about the people in the town and the effect of prison expansion on the fabric of American life.

POV:How did you decide to make this film, and what can you tell us about the context of it -- the prison boom?

Kutchins: We've both done a lot of films about criminal justice, and there have been a lot of films made about people who go to jail. We both felt like the untold story was the widespread, resounding effect of the prison boom of the past twenty years -- the biggest one in human history. After two decades of such a huge expansion, everybody is affected somehow -- even if they don't really know it -- and we wanted to tell a story that people who wouldn't necessarily tune into documentaries would watch.

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Katie Galloway: We looked at dozens of towns across the country and we finally settled on Susanville because of an article we read by a woman who lives there, an article called "An American Seduction" by Joelle Fraser (download a PDF of the article). It very vividly captured what the town feels like. People in Susanville say it's a world of cops and cons.

POV:Why have towns like Susanville become "prison towns" and what is the impact of a prison on a small town like Susanville?

Kutchins: The prison boom came in the wake of traditional industries waning for decades since the 1950s. Ranching, mining and milling got outsourced. Then, when the political climate shifted and prison expansion began, people in the towns welcomed prison officials when they said:, "We're going to build a prison, it's going to create jobs, and you'll be able to count the prisoners in your census numbers." But they didn't understand that the repercussions are huge. You get a lot of money that comes in through higher wages that the guards make, but there are Wal-Marts and fast food joints that just flow in after the prison. That's part and parcel of the prison expansion, and local businesses don't get that money, the big, big corporations do, so the money doesn't even stay in Susanville.

Galloway: People talk in Susanville about the town being on lockdown, so it's not just the prison that's on lockdown, it's such a sense of tension that permeates the town. One woman we interviewed said, "I guess we didn't think that they'd come and take over like they have." So there's really a sense of being taken over culturally, of having the town's identity change radically.

POV: Tell us more about the relationship in Susanville between the families of prisoners and those of guards.

Galloway: The population sign in Susanville reads something like 18,000, but more than 11,000 of the residents are incarcerated, so it's a smaller town than it seems. You cross paths with the same people all the time, so people who have a loved one incarcerated bump into correctional officers in the street, but it's prison policy that you don't associate with family members of inmates. So people who come to town to be near their loved ones really wind up living a pretty isolated existence.

POV: How long did it take to make Prison Town, USA?

Kutchins: We started researching the film in 2002 -- it's a huge subject and there are hundreds of prison towns, so we had to narrow it down to one town and its residents to make the story more personal. After we did our first scouting shoot in Susanville, we spent another year and a half just finding our first main character, a person who had a storyline developing that we could follow and we had to film with each of the main characters for quite some time to allow their stories to evolve.

POV: The characters in "Prison Town, USA" are so strong. What can you tell us about searching for them?

Kutchins: We looked for a long time to find people, disparate people, who were affected by the prison in the town of Susanville. We wanted an inmate family, we wanted a guard, and we wanted a local businessperson. So through trial and error, through talking to people, we had to break down the distrust that everybody had, especially in the atmosphere of fear that prisons breed. The only guards who were open enough, because they hadn't been hardened yet, turned out to be the people that were just starting the process of becoming guards out of financial necessity, so we were able to follow their journey from "everyman" to prison guard.

The story of Jennifer Machin and Lonnie, her husband, was incredibly compelling. It was just terrible luck that they stopped [in Susanville] and were out of money and needed some food to feed their children. And it happened to be a prison town, because anywhere else, if Lonnie had stolen $40 worth of groceries, he would have gotten a night in jail, he would have been penalized much less harshly. But in a penal-minded town that's just what happens. So he was thrown into jail for 16 months and his family was stranded. That story broke our hearts. We met Jennifer in a soup kitchen, and she was struggling for her family to stay together. And then once Lonnie was out, they were stuck there because he had to serve parole in the town, and that's a pretty tense situation.

You can write all you want about [the prison boom], but until you really understand people's experiences and you tell people about the hundreds and hundreds of prison towns that have been built in rural America and the extraordinary number of prisoners -- more than any other country in the world, over two million -- it's staggering. When you really see people who are living those lives, I think you understand it in a much more profound way and it becomes something that you can feel instead of just think about.

POV: Often the biggest hurdle for a documentary filmmaker is raising the cash necessary, but what were some of the other obstacles you faced with this film particularly?

Kutchins: One of the biggest obstacles was just earning the trust of people and making it so that people didn't feel like we were out to get them. They expected us to have an agenda, they expected us to try to slam prisons, and what we were trying to do is divorce ourselves from those big issues and say, "How does this affect each person?" I feel like the guards are in purgatory, and most of them are really good people, and they're just in this situation where they don't have other choices that are doable. If they want to stay in the town where they were born and raised, if they want their children to stay near their family, they have to take a job that's painful, and they're all trying to get through it. It breeds things in people that maybe wouldn't come out if they weren't in that situation. I wanted to understand it, and I wanted to overcome it, but that took a lot.

Galloway: The correctional officer community, which is very large in Susanville, was very difficult to penetrate, and it was very difficult to get access to the prison. Prisons all over the country are like little fiefdoms and the wardens call the shots about whether they're going to let people in or not. And High Desert is a level 4 prison [maxiumum security] and way overpopulated, about double the population it was meant for. And very, very violent, and under a lot of scrutiny. It took years to get in, but once we did, they invited us back.

POV: So what were your strategies for gaining trust?

Kutchins: When you film anyone, they're being incredibly generous and giving you so much. And you have to do right by them. You have to understand your obligation to present their stories well, and have compassion in your heart, because "There but for the grace of God go I." You have to reveal yourself to your characters, you have to be real with them, you have to make them understand that you're human, that you're hearing them and feeling them the way you would anybody that was talking to you and telling you their story. Prisons are scary places, and I understand why people have a lot of fear when they're in that world. It's just a tense, tense place and that feeling permeates prison towns. That fear rules people's lives. Nobody wanted to talk to us for a long time because they were scared and they're not supposed to talk to press, and they're not sure who you are because they're a small town and they know everybody and they don't know you. We just had to stick it out until they were like, oh yeah, those girls making that film, and we were old news.

Galloway: It really helped when we were able to spend several months there, really cultivating relationships. So if this person vouches for you, then you're in. Once we made in-roads in the correctional officer community, that was exponential, because once people gave their okay, then their friends talked to us.

POV: You're both seasoned filmmakers. Were there any particular surprises with making this film?

Kutchins: I'm always surprised, as I was with this film, how much I've liked people that maybe are from a very different political camp than I am. It's a wonderful thing to realize that you like them, that you have a commonality, that you're all just humans on earth.

Galloway: There are a couple of things that really surprised me. Even though I had worked on criminal justice stories for a long time, one of the things that really surprised me about the prison town phenomenon was finding out that prisoners are counted by the census in the towns where they're imprisoned rather than the towns they call home. So there's a huge shift of resources -- political, economic, social services, et cetera -- from the urban areas where most of the inmates come from to these rural areas. So there is a lot of political clout that comes with it. Census lines are redrawn. Federal and state money moves from urban areas to rural areas. So that was a big surprise in terms of what the implications are for democracy and for the urban areas where inmates come from.

Before doing the film, I hadn't really thought about the broad impacts of the prison building boom on children. I learned that one in ten children in the U.S. has a parent who is either incarcerated or on probation or parole. And then there are the impacts on kids of people who work in prisons. There's a lot of indication that there's substance abuse and domestic abuse that comes with the stress of prison work. And not to mention the impact on children, nationwide, when we choose as a society to invest so much of our resources in incarceration rather than say education or health care.

Another thing that really struck me was how reluctant many people who go into prison work are. There's a stereotype of the prison guard as being someone who is power-hungry and really wants to be in that position of authority. But in Susanville and other places we visited, there's a huge reluctance to go into that work and a sense of how their lives will be compromised by it. We heard the job being described over and over again as 98 percent boredom, 2 percent sheer terror, and they're not shy about talking about the psychological implications of working there eight, sometimes sixteen hours a day. When I heard about the abuses of authority in, say, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq, it wasn't a surprise to learn that some of those people involved had been correctional officers.

POV: When all was said and done, what did you find the most satisfying about making "Prison Town, USA"?

Galloway: In terms of the characters, my greatest satisfaction was seeing Lonnie and Jennifer and their family come through this horrific experience and come out the other side. And they're now happily in the Midwest and don't have any plans to come back to Susanville. They beat the odds.

POV: Who do you most want to see this film, and what do you want audiences to take away from it? How do you see the film as "outreach"?

Kutchins: I'm excited by how this film isn't just for people who watch documentaries. It's also for people in towns that might be having hard times and are thinking about bringing a prison in, and it's for people in towns that do have a prison and feel very isolated and alone and don't necessarily know there are others like them out there.

Galloway: One audience I really hope will benefit from seeing this film is people in prison towns who have really come to see each other as foreign. In prison towns, family members of prisoners and family members of correctional officers tend to be very divided, very suspicious of one another. But what we saw was the commonality of people who are struggling in impoverished circumstances to make a way for themselves and their families, and how easy it really is for them to wind up on either side of the prison walls. Several correctional officers said to us, "If I weren't working here as a correctional officer, I could have easily wound up one of these guys."

For politicians, there are choices that need to be made about the future of policy on incarceration, and raising consciousness about alternatives to incarceration is really important. At the moment, more than half of the prison population, over a million people, is incarcerated for nonviolent offences. And it doesn't make sense to invest more than fifty billion dollars a year there. But there is some hope, there is some questioning of the policies surrounding the drug war and sentencing.

POV: What are your favorite documentary films?

Kutchins: Harlan County U.S.A. is a huge influence. I was about eleven years old when I saw it, and it was profound, and my film is called "Prison Town, USA", so there's a connection. Barbara Kopple went and lived with people that were different than her and became very close with them and showed us their struggles in the face of very violent, difficult situations, so that might have influenced me. I love Errol Morris because he dares to not be pigeonholed in a single genre and actually kind of invents his own. I love American Movie because it's about an unlikely character, and the filmmaker has a great compassion. I loved Paris is Burning for showing us the point of view of characters that were very different from us.

POV: What is your advice for a first-time filmmaker?

Kutchins: Persevere. And you have to be compassionate and love your characters and don't think of them as different from yourself. Take the responsibility of telling their stories right, and don't be daunted by how difficult it is.

POV: What's the hardest thing about making an independent film?

Kutchins: You're out there on your own. That's exciting, because you don't have anyone telling you how to do it, but it also means you're making it up as you go along. You have to forge your way through a world that's very complicated on your own, and try to find an audience for it, and try to find a venue for it, at the same time as just trying to get it made.