In Susanville, Ca., at the edge of a valley in remote northeast California, there are nearly as many people living inside the walls of the town’s two state prisons, roughly 7,000, as outside. About half of the adults work at the prisons — the soon-to-be shuttered minimum security California Correctional Center and a maximum security facility, High Desert, which will remain open. When the California Correctional Center was built in the 1960s, many people in Susanville relied on jobs at nearby sawmills and on cattle ranches. Those jobs eventually disappeared, and now almost every aspect of the town’s economy and civic life, from real estate to local schools, depends on the prisons, reports the New York Times. Over the years, the inmate population has counted toward political representation, and was factored into the money the town received from federal pandemic relief funds and state money to fix roads.
The story of Susanville resembles that of countless rural communities that in the last century welcomed correctional facilities to replace dying industries at a time when the U.S. was undergoing a prison-building boom. Now, California and other states are moving to reduce inmate populations and close prisons amid a national movement to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. “It will affect the whole town,” said Mayor Mendy Schuster, whose husband works as a corrections officer. “I don’t want to imagine what it would be like.” Susanville is fighting back, trying to halt the closure through legal means, rather than seeking 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 codes in deciding to close the prison and did not give local officials any prior notice. The issue has drawn attention across the state amid divisive debates about the future of the state’s penal system. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has promised to close two prisons — the one in Susanville, and another in Tracy, a town 60 miles east of San Francisco that already is closed — the culmination of years of work by activists, as well as the steady decline in the state’s inmate population. The lawsuit has achieved an early victory: a local judge issued a temporary injunction halting plans for closing the prison while the case moves through the courts.