Prison Town, USA

People in Susanville say it’s a world of cops and cons.

Katie Galloway

“There’s three things that’s important to us,” parole officer Marvin Clark instructs his parolee: “God, country, and family.” Lonnie nods in agreement. He knows what’s important. He’s just spent 16 months in prison for stealing $40 worth of tuna fish and mac-and-cheese from a supermarket. During his incarceration, his wife Jennifer and two young sons moved to Susanville, California, where the prison is located, in order to be able to visit him. Here, all family members serve their own sort of time, argues Prison Town, USA. Oppressive and unproductive, that time is increasingly common in the small towns where prison is the central industry.

Focused on several very specific stories — including parolee Lonnie, security trainees Gabe and Dawayne, and local businessman Mike O’Kelly — Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins’ excellent documentary shows the industry’s broader effects. As O’Kelly introduces the problem, his Morning Glory Dairy is at risk of going under, because he’s about to lose his largest contract, delivering milk to High Desert Prison. After the state penitentiary became the major employer and source of revenue for the entire depressed community of “seven or eight thousand,” the prison is now planning to purchase from outside. This despite the initial promise to “bring jobs,” a promise that helped to alleviate the pain of losing the previous major employer, the lumber industry (the last sawmill closed in 2004). Facing the loss of his family’s business (“I’m a third generation Lassen county milkman,” he says), Mike laments the “demise of this way of life” while struggling to survive.

Looking at the “biggest prison building boom in history,” Prison Town, USA is understated and also unsettling. It follows its subjects for two years, observing day-to-day life in the Susanville area, which accommodates three prisons and over 11,000 inmates, more than one and a half times the number of local residents (Susanville’s story is typical, as, during the 1990s, a prison opened every 15 days in the rural U.S.). Though the film focuses almost entirely on locals, an early remark by a prison official sets a tension between them and the prison. As soon as he says the community was “very accepting of the department of corrections,” a resident declares wearily, “They were gonna build it anyway.” As the town has become dependent on the industry, people are feeling resentful: “This is a prison town,” says one young woman, “but there’s no sense of pride about it.”

Susanville, California is one of hundreds of American prison towns.

That’s not to say prison employees don’t work hard or take their jobs serious. To the contrary, corrections officers John Peterson and Alan Burker attest to the skills necessary to oversee hundreds of inmates, and demonstrate their daily preparation in the gym (where a sign above one station shows a group of stereotypical muscle-headed, tattooed prisoners under the caption, “They worked out today. Did you?” This opposition of them and us is key to the prison’s economy in the region as well as its social and political workings within. Most of the inmates at High Desert are violent, says Peterson, which means that the officers all have to have “their game face on.” Burker tries to counter the stereotype: “I think people see the guards as so called knuckle-draggers and they take people back there and beat ’em down and so forth.” He sees his work as more rational, less brutal, attuned to the nuances of working side by side with “some of the most heinous criminals in the world.”

“The prison changes people,” says one interviewee — both inmates and workers (someone observes, “There’s a lot of domestic violence,” but this is not a focus here). Cheri Farrell’s Crossroads Ministries helps inmates’ families to manage their lives and finances (“One in 10 children has a parent in prison or on parole,” a title card reveals). Her discussions with Jennifer display not only the diurnal scraping by, but also the emotional tolls on spouses and children. Jennifer’s son Jeremy anticipates that when his dad is released, their lives will be fine. The fact that Lonnie can’t find steady work in Susanville, where he’s to remain during his parole period, underlines the Catch-22 for this nonviolent offender (“This is the hardest fucking time I’ve ever had in my life,” he says, clearly distraught. “You know how worthless how you feel as a man when you can’t take care of our kids?”). Even leaving aside the emotional and spiritual costs, the money spent by the state on his 16 months’ detention, his kids’ brief custody by Child Services, and his wife’s penal processing, is ridiculous, considering his crime. But this is the point: the prison industry is just that, a business designed for profit and punishment, not for rehabilitation and reintegration.

As Gabe and Dawayne take up a 15-week training course at the academy, they imagine a better future. They’re instructed in reading (not so important at the sawmill), to be consistent (“Inmates hate switch-ups”) and engage in military-style drills (“Your life is at risk every day you go out there”). Back home, officers’ wives contend with their own tensions: one reports (anecdotally) that the divorce rate for guards and their spouses is somewhere near 70%, another worries about her kids at school with inmates’ children (such friendships are discouraged). Someone recounts the story of a restaurant that flourished until it became known that it was owned by “inmate people,” at which point business dropped off: “Then it was empty and they closed and they left.”

With all these many conflicts percolating and occasionally erupting, Susanville remains at something of a standstill. Subtle and incisive, Prison Town, USA makes the many losses visible. Even as the prison industry looks to expand (a poster inside High Desert reads, “By 2050, 50% of our youth will be in prison”), it depletes the daily existence of populations on all sides, workers, inmates, and families. Dawayne needs to go through the academy twice in order to graduate and get work. As he makes his way into his new life, he astutely observes, “You’re pretty much locked up too, but you’re not locked up in a little bitty cell.”

Former lumber mill worker Dawayne Brasher now works at High Desert State Prison.

RATING 8 / 10