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Prison Town

By Megan Kinneyn | Jul. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Jul. 2, 2007

Prison Town

A new documentary examines the impact prisons have on the towns that welcome them. By Chuleenan Svetvilas

By Chuleenan Svetvilas
      Edited by Jeanette Borzo
      What happens to a town that becomes dependent on the prison system? Prison Town, USA, a 90-minute documentary, provides a sobering response in its look at Susanville, California, where nearly half the adult population works at one of three prisons, including the maximum-security High Desert State Prison that opened in 1995. Directors Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins reveal the prisons' social and economic impact through interviews with a cross-section of townspeople and one inmate and his family.
      The documentary presents eye-opening facts about U.S. prisons: The United States has more prisoners per capita than any other country; one in ten American children has a parent who is incarcerated or on probation or parole.
      But Prison Town's main focus is the people of Susanville, a town in northeastern California whose welcome sign boasts a population of 17,500. As one woman drives around town, she says "everything is us versus them," with "them" alternately referring to the inmates or to the correctional officers. A prison employee tells her daughter not to bring home a friend whose parent is an inmate. A High Desert guard spends his free time exercising to stay in shape for work, and a dairy worker decides to quit his job to earn more as a prison guard. Later, this decision seems prescient when we meet the local dairy owner, who says there may be layoffs if the prisons stop buying his milk.
      The story of Lonnie Tyler, serving a 16-month sentence, reveals an inmate's perspective. Something of a Californian version of Jean Valjean, Tyler was passing through Susanville with his wife and two children when he was caught stealing groceries. A local ministry helps the family as they wait for Tyler's release and later during Tyler's probation.
      The documentary aptly reveals how Susanville, like so many other struggling towns, initially welcomed prisons for their economic benefits-but now faces their unforeseen consequences. Prison Town, USA airs on the PBS series P.O.V. on July 24 at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.)

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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