Happily Ever Imprisoned: One Town's Brave, Unwavering Support for Mass Incarceration
In Spring 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed closing two state prisons. Thankfully, this decision was not done out of some anti-incarceration attitude or done to address the sexual and physical abuse endemic to the state’s prisons. Instead, Newsom's decision to close two of the state's thirty-four severely overcrowded prisons was primarily economically motivated. The planned budget could save the state’s corrections system over $100 million a year. We can only pray that this money will go towards another raise for prison guards and not to useless amenities like healthcare for the aging prison population. Some radicals may propose unrealistic ideas such as releasing elderly prisoners but I’d argue that older prisoners best match the aesthetics of California's aging, unsafe corrections facilities. Gov. Newsom is aware of the ramifications of the closures and promised to support the needs of the unions, communities, and prison staff (happy to see no mention of the needs of the incarcerated). However, the small rural town of Susanville is taking a brave stand to protect their prison.
A New York Times article depicts the plight Susanville, a small town left with few options when the mining and lumber industries dried up in the mid-20th century. The town was saved with the opening of the California Correctional Center (CCC) in 1963 and buoyed again in 1995 with the opening of High Desert State Prison (HDSP). Despite the initial concerns that a second prison would undo the town's economic development, the combined force of both facilities have proven to be invaluable job providers for the Susanville community. CCC is set to close in June 2022 because of Newsom's budget but the town is fighting back. Susanville filed a lawsuit accusing the state of violating environmental codes by closing the prison without giving local officials prior notice. Town mayor Mendy Schuster bemoaned the decision and called the potential effects of the impending closure on unimaginable. Some may call the economic, psychological, and racial impacts of incarceration “unimaginable”, but they clearly have never talked to Mayor Schuster.
The article goes on to highlight local efforts to save CCC and its hundreds of workers. Residents have raised money for prison staff and many streets proudly display “Fight For CCC” flyers with personal statements of what the prison means to them and their families. The article details the economic development the town has come to rely on after CCC opened; the prison paved the way for new schools, housing, and commerce to accommodate the influx of new employees. Many older (nonincarcerated) residents fondly remember this time of unprecedented growth. Mike O’Kelly, a third generation owner of Morning Glory Dairy, talked about CCC’s commitment to buying local. His family has provided nutritious staples like milk and eggs to CCC for decades. O’Kelly credited the “buy local” approach of CCC with creating the happy little prison town everyone knows and loves. It is clear that CCC acts as both an economic center and a historical pillar for many in Susanville.
After the closure gained coverage in the national press, Susanville residents balked at the— quite frankly misguided — claim that they were a white community committed to keeping incarceration going. Yes, the town is 76% white. Yes, African Americans are over-represented in California’s prison population and yes, they are rallying to keep a prison, the major tool of incarceration, open but those facts obscure the heart of the issue. The NYT article describes the trials and tribulations of prison guards at CCC who, despite high salaries, face constant threats of violence. Considering the psychological trauma of the job is important, especially with the cruel conclusions of the state’s investigation into Susanville prisons. Things like a “a culture of racism and lack of acceptance” at HDPS and reports of racialized physical abuse at CCC definitely could hurt worker morale.
The article’s author Tim Arango appropriately makes no mention of the history of racism at CCC and HDSP nor does he interview any current or formerly incarcerated people about their experiences in the Susanville facilities. This ingenious move side steps pesky moral concerns about “humanizing” incarcerated people or demonstrating that the town’s economy was built on an exploitative, racist system. I only hope that the town can continue to profit from the caging of other humans, as they clearly have no other options.