Jurisprudence

Prison Towns Need to Die to Be Reborn

A highway sign that reads Susanville city limit, population 17,500.
Susanville. Kevin Lund/Flickr

A former logging and mining town, Susanville, California, has long had a history of hosting one extractive industry after another. Back in the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, that looked like an unshakable reliance on mining and logging. It’s economic domination over Susanville meant that every person in town knew at least one person who spent their weekdays mining for copper, aluminum, or gold in the Diamond Mountains, or working at one of the area’s many logging mills. Today, it looks like the California Correctional Center, an all-male state prison, opened in Susanville in 1963 that employs 1,080 people and exploits the excesses of the carceral state by shipping in and locking up thousands from other communities around the state, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. “Predominantly white communities are extracting various forms of wealth, political representation, and democratic power at the direct expense of poor communities of color,” University of Washington professor Rebecca Thorpe said of the dynamic. In April, though, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that many of Susanville’s residents will soon have to find a new way to make their livings, causing a local uproar.

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After nearly 60 years, the state prison, which is largely responsible for stabilizing Susanville’s rural economy post-deindustrialization, is set to shut down by June 2022 under an order from Newsom and following a pledge from the governor to close at least two of the state’s 35 prisons while in office.

Combined between the California Correctional Center and the nearby High Desert State Prison, prison jobs makes up more than 45 percent of Susanville’s employment, the Los Angeles Times reported last month. They also hold more than 5,300 of the about 115,000 people incarcerated in California’s state prison system, a disproportionate amount of whom are Black, Latinx, or low-income. The California Correctional Center’s “vacancies” page, used to recruit new hires, advertises a stunning mountain view and a picture of the historic Lassen County Courthouse, faced with white stone and marble and glowing in the sunlight. There are no images of the prison.

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Susanville residents across the board have come out against the proposed prison closing, citing the economic and sociopolitical volatility such a change could bring to their community. The city of Susanville is even planning to sue the Newsom administration over the decision.

The pushback against the prison closure by Susanville’s unincarcerated residents is representative of the complicated relationship between rural economies and mass incarceration. Rural communities on the decline—many of them single-industry areas like Susanville—too often hinge their economic stability and community identity directly on the “warehousing” of “already marginalized, poor communities of color,” according to Thorpe.

The same prisons that “save” these predominantly white rural communities exist only because people (a disproportionate amount of whom are Black, brown, or otherwise marginalized) are systematically disappeared and imprisoned in these rural areas at the expense of their own communities. Not only do rural prisons bring with them the opportunity for more service jobs to be created in order to accommodate growing populations of prison workers and the families of incarcerated people, but they also provide direct access to more political power. Prison gerrymandering—where incarcerated people are counted as part of the population of the area in which they are incarcerated rather than where they came from, artificially inflating the populations of rural areas like Susanville—means that prison towns receive more government funding for their communities and more political representation. It also provides prison towns an incentive to support politicians who promise to increase incarceration rates.

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“I have grace for many of the people living there and want to assume their best intentions, and that those intentions are informed by a lack of imagination, rather than by a motivation to [continue to] harm and disappear people away from their families and their homes,” said Nicole D. Porter, the director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, about the pushback in Susanville against prison closures. “But to want people to be disappeared from their homes in Los Angeles or Oakland, so that those bodies can be warehoused in Susanville as a pretext for the economic security of that community? That’s an unacceptable social policy and vision for the community.”

The consequences of basing an entire economy on the prison industry is harmful even for those working in the prisons themselves, according to Emily Harris, the policy director for Los Angeles’ Ella Baker Center. “The trauma of just being a person whose job every day is to cage other humans? That is not creating a healthy community,” she said.

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According to prison and rural communities expert Tracy Huling’s “Building a Prison Economy in Rural America,” the majority of new prisons built since 1980 have been in rural (or nonmetropolitan) areas. From 1990 to 1999 alone, 245 prisons were built in rural communities, or about one every 15 days, and brought with them about 75,000 jobs. The majority of these jobs, especially the highest-paying ones, Huling found, don’t even go to people from the rural towns where the prisons are built.

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In the cases where prison jobs do go to people from the community, though, they are often the best paid jobs in a rural area. Danni Adams, the Central Florida Regional Organizer for the abolitionist organization Dream Defenders, lives in a rural town about 30 minutes from Orlando, Florida. There, the sheriff’s office, county jail, and police are all major employers, even among the town’s Black community. “I think that a missing element to all of this is reminding people who also work for the sheriff or the prison department that, ‘You’re still a part of this suffering population, you still don’t have all the resources that you need, but this place is making thousands and millions of dollars [by making] you criminalize people that look like you,’ ” Adams said.

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Any transition away from prisons, while necessary, Adams said, must be rooted in the question of, “How do I move away from prison, but also keep the culture and the essence of this town?” Harris and Porter agree.

“It’s not just about ending mass incarceration, it’s not just about taking away cages, it’s about building the world that we want,” Harris said. That involves direct engagement with communities to develop the new and innovative opportunities that would be necessary for a just transition away from a prison economy. “We want people to be in good jobs … and those can be outside of law enforcement and outside of the carceral state,” she added. The options for what can be done with closed prisons are virtually endless—other communities have converted their prisons into shelters, cannabis laboratories, sports villages, and even movie studios—but the experts agree that the best ideas will come from inside the community itself. The Susanville community, though, is reluctant to even consider this change. “Nobody was asked our opinions about it or what the impact could be,” Misty Arteaga, who works at an army depot nearby, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s just like—our town is starting to die.”

Towns like Susanville, though, need to be reborn in a way that doesn’t extract and exploit people from places that the carceral state have already been destroying.

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