In California, it’s time to close prisons

After decades of mass incarceration, more and more correctional centers are closing in the United States. But how to live when the whole local economy revolves around prisons? Report in the small Californian town of Susanville.

De Susanville (California) — This house, the Mauldin family adored it. She had acquired it during the financial crisis and had invested a small fortune in its modernization. She had brought out a new landscaped garden and erected new fences to make an ideal playground for the two children. The kitchen and floors were brand new. The driveway was hemmed with lilacs. But when word started to spread in the spring of 2021 that one of the city’s two prisons was going to close, the Mauldin family made a heartbreaking decision: they put their house up for sale. “We had put all our heart and all our soul into this house, in this region”, sighs Jessica Mauldin, 39, whose husband is a prison officer.

Prisons sprouted like mushrooms”

In Susanville, a remote town in northeastern California, there are almost as many people behind the walls of the city’s two prisons – nearly 7,000 people – as outside. Nearly half of the workforce works at one of two detention centers, the California Minimum Security Correctional Facility, which is about to close, and the High Desert High Security Prison, which will continue to operate.

When the California Correctional Center came into being in the 1960s, most residents of Susanville made their living working in sawmills or ranches in the area. Those jobs eventually died out, and today much of the town’s economy, and the lives of the residents, revolves around the prison. The presence of this large prison population ended up influencing the political orientation of Susanville and was taken into account in the amount of aid paid to the city for the health crisis or road maintenance.

The history of Susanville resembles that of countless small American towns which, during the second half of the 20and century, began to accommodate prison establishments to replace moribund industries. It was the time when prisons sprouted like mushrooms across the country. But, today, California and other states are moving to reduce their prison populations and close correctional facilities as part of a broad nationwide movement to address racial inequality in the US penal system. “The whole city will pay the price”, deplores Mendy Schuster, the mayor of Susanville, whose husband is a prison guard.

Preserving the status quo

So much is at stake that Susanville has chosen to fight back by trying to have the closure canceled by legal means rather than looking for new economic activities to replace the prison. Last year, the city therefore filed a lawsuit against the State of California, claiming that the decision-makers had violated the environmental code by ordering the closure and had caught local elected officials off guard.

If the fight has been on everyone’s lips in Susanville for months, it is also followed in the rest of the state, against a backdrop of controversy over the future of California’s penal institutions. Democratic state governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to close two detention centers – one in Susanville and another in Tracy, about 100 miles east of San Francisco, which is closed at this time. a decision that is the fruit of several years of militant mobilization, but also of the continuous decline of the prison population of the State.

The same trend can be observed elsewhere, notably in New York State, where the prison population has never been so low for several decades. In year

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