It seems that the theme for many of the documentaries about rural life involve efforts by the residents to boost the economy in rural areas. In particular, the documentary “Prison Town, USA” tells the story of the rural town of Susanville that attempts to revive its economy and increase job opportunities by building a prison. Normally, a prison is the last thing someone would want in their neighborhood, but as the story of Susanville demonstrates this has changed in many rural towns which are now welcoming prisons with open arms in an effort to address persistent poverty. In the 1980s, as a skyrocketing prison population created a demand for prison expansion and, as a result, prison hosting emerged as a way to stimulate economic growth. Prisons seemed to offer a practical way to address the persistent poverty and out-migration of rural towns.
Calvin Beale, a demographer from the United States Department of Agriculture, has comprehensively documented the rise in rural prison siting. Since 1980, approximately 350 rural counties have sited prisons. From 1992 to 1994 alone 83 prisons were opened in nonmetropolitan counties, constituting sixty percent of new prison construction. And with an average of 35 jobs being created for every 100 inmates being housed, and state prison populations increasing by an annual average of 8.1% from 1985 to 1995, local officials began to consider prisons as an economic development tool.
Prison officials often go to great lengths to convince rural communities of the economic benefits of prisons. In fact, it is common for local officials to sponsor town meetings where prison officials and their supporters are invited to extol the benefits of prisons to communities. Because of these claims, the competition for prison projects has become fierce and political. In order to be considered competitive rural counties give up a lot to gain what they hope will be more: offering financial assistance and concessions such as donated land, upgraded sewer and water systems, housing subsidies, and, in the case of private prisons, property and other tax abatements.
However, a recent report has found that prisons generally appear to have a negligible, or perhaps negative, impact on economic development in rural communities. As this report indicates, many rural stakeholders overlook the fact that in addition to affecting employment and income patterns, the location of a prison in a rural community is likely to affect population distribution, economic infrastructure and quality of life in that community.
“Prison Town, USA” highlighted yet another problem with prison development, namely that often it is difficult to guarantee that the prison will actually yield the promised benefits. The residents of Susanville saw began a campaign to prevent prisons to cancel their contracts with Morning Glory Dairy specifically, and presumably other local businesses. Morning Glory in particular relied on this account for more than a quarter of its business. Unfortunately, the people of Susanville seem to have little power against the vast economic and political power of the corrections industry.
Additionally, as this documentary depicts, the correctional facilities introduce new divisions in an otherwise tight-knit community. These divisions are primarily between those who work for the prisons and those who don't, and between locals and prisoners' family members. The film highlights the struggles of husband and wife, Lonnie and Jen, who are especially affected by this divide. Lonnie spent sixteen months in prison for stealing food worth no more than $40 to feed his family, something that not only seems excessive but expensive for taxpayers. Lonnie and Jen’s story calls into question not only the actual benefits of prison industries to a small community, but the underpinnings of the prison boom itself and the human costs of the nation's criminal justice policies.