‘Nothing Will Be the Same’: A Prison Town Weighs a Future Without a Prison

Susanville, CA – The Mauldin family loved their home. They bought it during the financial crisis and spent a lot of money to upgrade the house that looks like a country house. New landscaping and fencing so the two kids have a nice place to play. Completely new kitchen and new floors. Rows of lilac bushes line the driveway. But when news broke last spring that a prison in Susanville had closed, the family made a decision they never wanted to make: They put their house up for sale.

“We put our hearts and souls into this house and this area,” said Jessica Mauldin, 39, whose husband works as a prison guard. “We built our village here.”

In Susanville, on the edge of a valley surrounded by the Sierra Nevada in remote northeastern California, nearly 7,000 people live within the walls of the town’s two state prisons, as they do outside. About half of adults work in prisons — the soon-to-be-closed California Correctional Center with maximum security and a high-security facility, High Desert, which will remain open.

When the California Correctional Center was built in the 1960s, many people in Susanville, who cherishes their small-town way of life — “we’re not rural, we’re in limits,” one resident said — relied on jobs at nearby sawmills and on cattle ranches. . Those jobs eventually disappeared, and now almost every aspect of the city’s economy and civic life, from real estate to local schools, is dependent on the prison. Over the years, the number of prisoners has counted toward political representation, factoring in the amount of money the city received from federal pandemic relief funds and state money for road repairs.

Susanville’s story is not unlike that of countless rural communities in America that in the back half of the last century were welcoming correctional facilities to replace moribund industries at a time when the country was experiencing a prison-building boom. But now, California and other states are moving to reduce prisoner numbers and close prisons amid a nationwide movement to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“It’s going to affect the whole city,” said Mindy Schuster, mayor of Susanville, whose husband is a corrections officer. “I don’t want to imagine what it would be like.”

With so much at stake, Susanville, trying to stop the shutdown through legal means, resists rather than looking for new industries to replace the prison. Last year, the town filed a lawsuit against the state that is still pending, arguing that officials violated environmental laws in the decision to close the prison and did not give local officials any advance notice.

Fighting has been front and center in the population over the past several months, but the case has also drawn attention across the state amid divisive discussions about the future of the state’s penal system. Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has promised to close two prisons — one in Susanville, the other in Tracy, a town 60 miles east of San Francisco, which has already been closed — the culmination of years of work by activists, as well as a steady decline in The state’s population.

It’s a trend that’s happening in other states as well, particularly in New York, where the prison population is at its lowest level in decades. After former Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on a list of prison closures, a backlash erupted in the north of the state similar to what happened in Susanville, with protests over job losses. More recently, New York’s current governor, Cathy Hochhol, said she plans to close six prisons, which drew condemnation from Republican officials who said the move would make the public less safe and cost many jobs.

On Main Street in Susanville, the phrase “Save Our Rural Communities” reads on the sign welcoming breakfast customers to the Courthouse Cafe. The street connects the city’s past and present: at one end is the historic center’s old Western-style cluster of buildings, and at the other are fast-food outlets and big-box retailers.

“We have a good thing,” Keri Cobb, a local mortgage broker, said of the prison. I organized fundraising for the lawsuit. “That’s why we struggle to preserve it. These facilities have given us the ability to get up. Now they are pulling the rug out from under us.”

On an active evening in late fall, Mrs. Cobb met a group of public officials and prison workers at a pizzeria. As the waitress was walking in and out and carrying pizza and beer, Ms. Cobb raised the money: $7,700 so far, mostly from small donations.

The lawsuit achieved an early victory: A district judge issued a temporary injunction halting plans to close the prison while the case moves to the courts.

However, late last year a stop-work sign appeared on one of the storefronts on Main Street, Uptown Uniforms, which for years sold work shirts and pants to police officers, firefighters and construction crews.

This was the first concrete indication of the economic fallout that the population was preparing for. Not far from Uptown Uniforms is century-old Morning Glory Dairy, one of those companies in town that sells straight to prison—hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in milk, eggs, and ice.

Josh McKiernan, 32, who bought dairy a few years ago, said he thinks his business can continue, but that it will be smaller and may have to lay off some workers. “I try to provide for my children like everyone else,” he said. “If it weren’t for this, I would probably be working in prison. Not much.”

It was 1963, and that was July. California Governor Edmund J. Brown came to Susanville to present the nation’s “latest concept in correction,” said a reporter on the scene.

In the presence of curious officials from other Western states, the governor solemnly laid the foundation stone for the California Center for Conservation and announced the investigation of “enlightened efforts to bring responsible citizens out of criminals and criminals.”

This was years before the era of mass incarceration in America, and California thought it had a new concept for dealing with outlaws: redemption through hard work and a connection with nature. Among the green forests and pristine mountain air, prisoners in blue shirts and blue jeans learned to fight wildfires, domesticate wild horses and clear trees for hiking trails.

Susanville’s transformation was underway.

“When prison started, there was a lot of growth,” said Susan Koso, who moved here as a student in 1962. “Everyone was excited. Before prisons, high school guys would either go to work in sawmills or go somewhere else.”

One morning, Ms. Couso, a retired teacher married to a former prison guard, is found at the Lassen Historical Museum, where she volunteers and exhibits artifacts from the state’s settler history.

Ms. Couso pulled from the shelf an article she wrote for the Lassen County Historical Society about the economic boom that followed the prison’s opening in the 1960s:

“Now, homes were to be built to accommodate the new hires. Teachers needed to be hired, stores ready to expand, and nearly every aspect of the economy was ready to go.”

Today, Susanville, the county seat of Lassen County, is a republican state in a deep blue state. In the 2020 presidential election, 74 percent of voters chose Donald J. Trump, and more recently, 83 percent of voters, the highest of any county, chose to call Mr. Newsom, who eventually survived the challenge.

So, perhaps inevitably, plans to close the prison became political. Most town leaders say they believe the plans are revenge on Mr. Newsom to punish them for their conservative policies, rather than the fruits of efforts over many years to change the criminal justice system, some of which have been approved by voters through polling procedures.

“It’s hard not to think of it as an act of retaliation from the governor,” said Jarrett Elena, a fourth-generation Susanville resident whose family owns real estate, including hotels that rely in part on business, for families who travel from all over California to visit prisoners. . relatives.

Susanville has thrived in recent decades during an increase in the prison population due to punitive measures such as the Three Strike Acts that have disproportionately imprisoned blacks. Many of those filling prison beds have been convicted and sentenced by juries and judges in liberal cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, but have been sent to rural and conservative places like Susanville to serve their sentences.

State prisons have become so overcrowded that in 2011 the Supreme Court intervened and ordered the residents’ evacuation, ruling that the lack of medical care, adequate food, and sanitation violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Activists have hailed the announcement of California’s closing of two prisons as a milestone, the culmination of years of new sentencing laws and the work of liberal prosecutors who have sharply reduced the number of people in prisons across the state. In California’s busiest prison, it housed more than 160,000 people. Today, they have just under 100,000.

A pandemic-fuelled decline in the state’s population, with officials ordering the early release of thousands of prisoners to contain the virus, and changes to California’s sentencing laws in recent years that voters approved directly through polling procedures have allowed Mr. Newsom to make good on his promise to begin closing prisons.

Brian Kaneda, a Los Angeles activist who has campaigned to close prisons, said he believes the state has a “moral and moral obligation” to help communities like Susanville invest in new jobs to replace those in prisons. “No one dreams of being a prison guard,” said Mr. Kaneda, deputy director of California United for Responsible Budget, which campaigned for California to spend less on prisons. “That’s because they have no choice.”

The salaries of top prison guards can approach six figures, but the work can be excruciating, with violence always a threat.

“It’s a hugely dysfunctional place,” said Randall Wagner, 72, a retired corrections officer in Susanville. “People in the common people have no idea what it looks like.”

Ricci Reseda was imprisoned in Susanville from 2012 to 2013 for theft. Now a musician and social justice activist, he wrote recently that he understands the fear and frustration of Susanville residents, adding that “the state should help people” affected by prison closures transition to new jobs.

He continued, “Susanville is described as a ‘happy little prison town’ that created a pastoral life for many of its residents. I had a different experience.”

Sometimes during the meeting at the pizzeria, residents dismissed a narrative circulated on social media that Susanville is a white community fighting to maintain a prosperity built largely on the confinement of people of color.

“People have attached us to this white community that just wants to stay in prison,” Ms. Cobb said. “This industry was given to us and we embraced it.”

Trevor Albertson, president of Lassen Community College in Susanville, is one of the few leaders in the community who sees a positive side in losing prison, even as the school’s business is affected: The college will lose about 200 enrollments, or 15 percent of its total with the loss of programs it runs inside prison. .

“Who wants to hang their hat on the fact that we have a prison?” He said.

This was his message, he said in his conversations with local officials.

The city should welcome the opportunity to diversify so that “we don’t just move people to work in prison,” he said. “Why don’t we celebrate that?”

Meanwhile, the Mauldins pulled their home off the market after they didn’t get the offer they wanted, underscoring the difficulty some families may face in selling their homes if the lockdown continues. Ms. Mauldin’s husband considered getting a new prison job in Blythe, in eastern California’s Riverside County, which would allow the family to live in Arizona, where housing is cheaper. But for now, they have put their hope in legal efforts to save the prison.

“What now?” Mrs. Mauldin said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know what our next step will be.”

Regarding Susanville’s future, she said, “Nothing will be the same.”

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