Prison Town, USA

There’s a great documentary on PBS tonight, called Prison Town, USA.
“What happens when a struggling rural community tries to revive its economy by inviting prisons in?” the film asks.

[Image: Prison Town, USA].

In focusing on the rural “prison town” of Susanville, California, the film presents “a riveting look at one of the most striking phenomena of our times: a prison-building and incarceration boom unprecedented in American history.”
Indeed, this unprecedented “incarceration boom” hit the point 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.

California’s corrections industry, in particular – which now receives more state funding than does California’s university system – is “hungry for space, new guards and low visibility,” and so distant, rarely visited towns like Susanville seem perfect.
Meanwhile, in an interview with the filmmakers, we learn a bit more about this “correctional economy”:

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.

Further, there is an accompanying correctional geography, similar to what Bryan Finoki and others would call a carceral urbanism.

[Image: Prison Town, USA].

For instance, the fact that “prisoners are counted by the census in the towns where they’re imprisoned rather than the towns they call home” leads to 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.”
Specifically, as “federal and state money moves from urban areas to rural areas,” “census lines are redrawn” and otherwise insignificant little towns like Susanville can gain “a lot of political clout” by inviting this national “prison expansion” in.
In any case, I got to see a copy of the film last night, and I’d really recommend seeing it. So, if you’re near a television (and in the United States) tonight, give it a shot.
Here’s the trailer.

7 thoughts on “Prison Town, USA”

  1. Interesting.

    You mention mining and milling getting outsourced.

    Is it possible that prisons will one day be outsourced? Like Britain did in the 1700s with Australia?

    Perhaps all American lifers will get sent to Africa, or a remote part of Siberia.

    As for America having the highest incarceration rate per capita, this only reinforces the notions I have that, in particular areas, America is a horrible place to live (I’m from elsewhere).

    I read an article once about an American soldier in Iraq who was having the time of his life because , in the ghetto he called hom in Detroit, he was more likely to be shot or killed.

    There were statistics to prove this.

    What kind of country lets areas get to a point where living there is worse than living in a war zone?!

  2. Another sign of the US’s slide into an authoritarian police state.

    Thankfully I am also from elsewhere.

  3. Thank goodness your are both from ELSEWHERE! This documentary was so slanted and omitted to show the beautiful homes (historic and new), interview the many educated people of the area,nor did they report about available cultural events and many other great organizations.
    What do you suggest we do with the high percentage of the ILLEGALS housed in the Susanville prisons? … should we sent them back to their home country or just let them roam the streets? Do a little research and find out about the ethnicity of the gangs … research the underlying causes and you may find that certain people are just not willing to take personal responsibility. Oh no, America owes me, and if things don’t go their way, they rob, murder and rape! and end up in OUR prisons.
    By the way, do me a favor and stay at ELSEWHERE!

  4. Wow, what a nice, lovely, civilized discussion I missed! NOT!

    Folks, when you’ve got a lot of people committing crimes, a lot of prisons get built. Those prisons have consequences for the communities receiving them as well as the communities donating the prisoners. End of discussion. Whether the laws those prisoners were sentenced under are just or not is another, valid debate. This doesn’t make us an authoritarian dictatorship, it just makes us flawed. . . like your societies.

  5. This film was so biased I could hardly believe anyone accepted it as a documentary. If the prison system put out their version of this story, it would be dismissed as propaganda before being viewed. Why have I heard of no one in the media questioning facts or motives? The guy profiled never was in the prison; he was in the county jail. And he had a number of prior offences, hence the long sentence. When the producer was asked about his priors, she responded “..he decieved us” Say what? Aren’t you a journalist? Didn’t you ask any questions? Anyway, IMHO, this is bogus journalism.

  6. Heh canteenkenny: How did you get the facts on the tuna robber? I smelled a rat right off the bat with this guy, but didn't know how to verify it.

  7. May I correct a few misconceptions?

    China, not the US, incarcerates the most people.

    The correctional system in California gets more money than the University of California, because the University is largely funded privately.

    Other industries wained in Lassen County not due to outsourcing, but rather, lack of resources: all the trees were cut down, and it takes 80 year for regrowth. Also, the city council and county board have continuously opposed bringing in other industries.

    Inmates our counted as residents because the DO live in the county and DO have an impact: their families move to the town, increasing crime and welfare sources.

    Those of you who don't live in the US and read or see this: remember, there is a lot of propaganda used by the media in America. This film was sponsored by pro-inmate groups, since gang members have their own lobby in government.

    There is lots of crime in the US, because of massive illegal immigration, lack of effective gun control, and a tradition of lawlessness, especially in large, urban areas. On the other hand, most small towns in America are pleasant, friendly and open to outsiders. It is unfortunate that this film did not show THAT side of Susanville.

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