A Future for Susanville
Plans to shutter a California prison offer halting glimpses of a different world: an economy that doesn’t revolve around incarceration, a country where losing your job isn’t tantamount to ruin, and an opening for abolition.
Piper French, | May 5, 2022
If you drive into Susanville, California from the southwest, one of the first things you will see coming over the mountains and beginning the descent into town is a green road sign declaring the population of this remote outpost in the state’s rural northeast. The sign says that 17,500 people live in Susanville, an outdated number from the 2010 census; today, it’s more like 13,000. It does not specify that nearly one third of those residents are not free citizens but incarcerated people: around four thousand men locked inside two facilities a few miles farther down the valley.
All of Susanville’s residents are in a way tied to these prisons. The construction of the two facilities, completed in 1963 and 1995, has created a sort of forced dependency for the town’s free residents. The prisons drive the local economy; they have even shaped the physical landscape of the city, bringing new businesses and driving out others. Counting incarcerated people in the city’s official population helps boost everything from healthcare funding to money for local schools. Susanville is a prison town, a label that sits uneasily with its residents but a fairly accurate description of a place where half of the city’s free population labor behind prison walls. Everybody on the outside has a brother, cousin, or friend who works inside—as an office tech, nurse, janitor, guard.
Last April, California Governor Gavin Newsom disrupted that strange balance by announcing that Susanville’s California Correctional Center (CCC) would cease to operate by June 30, 2022, fulfilling an earlier pact to close two of the state’s 33 prisons. The governor has framed these closures as a fiscally sensible response to California’s shrinking prison population: closing the CCC would, in the state’s estimation, save $122 million out of an approximately $14 billion prison system budget. State officials offered to transfer guards to other prisons, though they acknowledged there would be layoffs, and stressed to the public that closures did not mean early releases. Don’t worry, they seemed to imply, nobody’s getting out.
Newsom’s plan to close the CCC appears in line with many Californians’ demands for a state less reliant on prisons and policing. However, the state has charted a course over the past year that seems to have satisfied no one: neither the free nor the incarcerated residents of Susanville, and not even the activists who fought for prison closures in the first place.
In the months following Newsom’s announcement, Susanville officials filed a last-ditch lawsuit against the state that sought to halt the CCC’s closure, alleging a series of procedural violations. The closure, the lawsuit claimed, would “cause the City of Susanville to suffer massive economic loss.” It quoted Lassen County representatives who said the planned closure “proves yet again that the leaders of our state agencies couldn’t care less about the livelihood of residents of the North State.”
The statewide coalition Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) supported the prison closures, but it was also demanding more. The coalition argues that the state must close 10 prisons by 2025, targeting the most decrepit, dangerous, environmentally hazardous facilities; use the closures to advance the release of elderly and sick people as well as those serving very long sentences; and invest the money saved back into communities whose members are likely to be highly policed and imprisoned in the first place.
Central to this ambitious agenda is a belief that California cannot leave behind all the people who have been bound up in its decades-long prison expansion project. CURB likes to invoke the notion of a “just transition”—a phrase popularized by climate activists and labor unions to describe a shift away from reliance on fossil fuels that doesn’t abandon that industry’s workers —to invoke a vision of decarceration that pairs prison closures with a reinvestment in communities, workers, and people.
“We don’t agree with the argument that a prison should stay open—human cages should stay open—because that’s the only way to run an economy,” Courtney Hanson, an organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a CURB member, told me. “But we do believe that the state of California and the California Department of Corrections has a responsibility to work with those on the ground in these communities, and particularly those incarcerated in those communities, to envision and implement alternatives.” In Susanville, that might look like retraining programs for former prison workers to do forest management or firefighting, work that has become ever more critical as the risk of wildfires in the region continues to mount.
Susanville made me wonder about the potential for overlapping aims, solidarity even, between the people who wanted to close the prison—close all prisons—and the people in town fighting for it to stay open. There were obvious political and cultural rifts to bridge. The official demographic count for Susanville denotes one of the Blackest cities in Northern California, but its free residents are mostly white, though there is also a sizable Native community in town. Many residents are conservative; Lassen County voted overwhelmingly for Newsom’s recall last September. CURB is a progressive, multiracial coalition of activists, many of them abolitionists, and many of whom have felt the sting of incarceration themselves.
But there was one commonality between groups advocating for the free and incarcerated people of Susanville: neither was satisfied by the state’s plans for closing the prisons. And in the activists’ calls for a better world, I saw a glimpse of possibilities that might suit the residents of Susanville as well—an economy that didn’t revolve around a prison, a country where losing your job wasn’t tantamount to ruin, a future that looked brighter than the past.
Susanville’s lawsuit to keep the California Correctional Center open is a window into the city’s selective dependency on its imprisoned residents. The men inside the prison are counted when it is useful to the town, or the region, but they do not count: as voters, as citizens, as people with a say in what happens to them. People incarcerated at the CCC are technically residents with a stake in how city officials represent them in court, yet they were not consulted during the drafting of the lawsuit, which mentions them only in passing.
Conscious that people locked inside the prison had been left out of discussions about its future, organizers with CURB tried reaching as many people inside the CCC as they could. It was the summer of 2021: The Dixie Fire, one of the largest in the state’s history, threatened Lassen County, and Covid-19 was spreading rapidly across the state. Once activists made contact, they realized that people incarcerated there had already begun organizing themselves.
Two men, Duane Palm and Timothy Peoples, had helped other incarcerated men file grievance reports, detailing everything from inadequate Covid-19 protections to retaliatory behavior from guards who were angry and stressed about the planned closure. They had noticed that people’s transfers were getting held up for no reason, and the power often cut out right when an anticipated game or show came on TV.
Both men had been at the CCC for just over three years. They had spent the entire pandemic there, an interminable series of lockdowns that blurred together. Both came from the Los Angeles area, more than 500 miles from the prison, and a world away from the people who staffed it. Timothy was from Pomona. Duane grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where his mother still lived; his wife and daughters lived in Torrance. Duane’s oldest daughter, Iman, was attending grad school remotely at NYU, and he hadn’t seen her in person since she was in her mid-teens. “It’s hard to promote family when this place is so far away,” Duane told me.
Duane and Iman communicated mostly by letter, and he tried to be as active a parent as he could despite the barrier between them. When I spoke to Iman, she told me that when they did speak on the phone, it was almost as though her father tried to concentrate his parenting into those sporadic, fifteen-minute intervals.
“It’s a lot of life lessons he’s learned, things I should avoid,” Iman said, adding that he rarely spoke about himself. “I don’t know,” she went on. “Maybe it’s just a nice connection to the outside world, like let me not focus on my situation, what’s going on—because he deals with that 24/7.”
Duane and Timothy and I first started trying to communicate in January, when the facility was on an extended lockdown owing to the Omicron variant, and I wasn’t able to have a proper phone conversation with either of them until early March. In the intervening weeks, each time one of them called while my phone was in the other room, or the call inexplicably dropped, or we made a plan to talk and the phone never rang at the appointed time, I thought back to something Duane had written to one of the CURB organizers: “Consistent communication from outside to in and vice versa is … critical to decarceration moving forward.”
To talk with the free people of Susanville, I merely had to show up, make a few calls, visit them at their homes. I would come to know Duane only as neat, shapely handwriting; as a deep, calm voice interrupted by the prison phone system’s automated reminders that our conversation was not private, that anything and everything we said to each other effectively belonged to the state.
For both Duane and Timothy, last summer’s wildfire was a breaking point. “The Dixie fire proved CCC disregard for prisoners’ life,” Timothy wrote. “We were the subjects of constant ash and smoke, no power, no ventilation.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (the agency added that last word to its name in 2005) told me in an emailed statement that the CCC used generators during the fire to “ensure appropriate prison operations.” The agency also says it gave men inside the prison N95 masks “to lessen the impact of unhealthy air days,” adding, “At no time was anyone injured, nor was there any imminent danger to the population and staff.”
Duane and Timothy remember the lights inside the prison going out for nearly a month. They choked on the smoke that filled their cells and covered their faces with wet towels in order to breathe. “It made me feel like we were irrelevant as human beings,” Duane told me flatly.
Driving up to Susanville from Los Angeles at the end of February, I thought of the bus journey from LA to Sacramento that the scholar and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore depicts at the outset of Golden Gulag, her definitive account of prison expansion in California. The passengers, a diverse crew of prison reform advocates, “embodied 150 years of California history and more than 300 years of national anxieties and antagonisms,” in Gilmore’s telling. The final stretch of my brutal, 11-hour voyage up the 5, the interstate connecting Southern and Northern California, ran through a desolate valley filled with the dead husks of trees that the Dixie Fire had incinerated the summer before.
Susanville is one wide main street, also known as State Route 36, nestled in a plain beneath the mountains. At one end is the town’s historic Uptown district, which includes a stately hotel, a movie theater with a neon marquee, small shops, and a mural of the town’s founders. But nearly every storefront there is shuttered. The interior of one, the Grand Café, looked perfectly preserved, as though the world had stopped just before the owner came in to set up for a breakfast shift. While I was walking down the main drag, a man working at a jewelry shop ran out to offer me a sheet of paper that listed 24 vacant Uptown properties and businesses. He’d thought I might be a potential buyer. The other end of the street looks like a different town entirely: dollar stores, Walmart, Payless Shoes, Starbucks, Panda Express.
In 1963, when the number of people incarcerated in state prisons in California was just over 26,000, the state had conceived of the CCC as “the world’s first correctional conservation center.” It was a prison with no cells, no guard towers, no bars on its windows, where people held in minimum-security lockup would be trained in firefighting and land stewardship. But in the late 1980s, a Level III unit was added, along with ominous, high-voltage electric fences. The expansion was part of a massive prison building boom that occurred both in California and across the nation in the 1980s and 1990s, just as laws like California’s’ Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (1988) and Three Strikes Law (1994) and their federal analogues significantly lengthened sentences. More people were going to prison, and for longer periods than ever before. Between 1982 and 2000, California’s prison population more than quadrupled.
Over the course of the 1990s, according to the scholar and filmmaker Tracy Huling, a new prison opened its doors in rural America every 15 days. In California, large tracts of former farmland were becoming available, and as a plan to build a new prison in East Los Angeles collapsed under unexpected community opposition, state prison officials decided to focus instead on rural areas.
CDCR began to dispatch employees—mostly women—around the state to convince rural residents of the benefits of placing prisons in their backyards. Lillian Koppelman was one of them. “I had a script,” she told me. “We would say that we intended to hire predominantly locally—which, as a matter of fact, wasn’t the case. You can’t really open a prison with brand new people.”
Lillian and her colleagues promised rural residents money, local contracts, economic “rejuvenation.” In the early 1990s, when the state sought to place a second prison in Susanville after nearby Plumas County rejected it, 57 percent of residents voted yes. High Desert State Prison opened its doors in 1995. Susanville had become a company town, and the business was incarceration.
Back in the late 1980s, on one of those prison outreach trips, Lillian had found herself in Susanville, where the CCC’s warden told her that the prison was looking to hire female correctional counselors. She felt hesitant about moving somewhere so rural, but she had also been wanting to leave Sacramento and try something new. “I don’t think I really had much of a notion about prisons at that time,” she told me. “When I did go work and live in a prison town, I would say my ideas changed quite a bit.”
During the seven years and four months she worked at the CCC, Lillian developed a stress-related health condition, filed a sexual harassment complaint against a coworker, and endured anti-Semitic comments from guards. She also saw who ended up in prison. Most of the men she met had grown up in poverty. People would end up back inside after being accused of parole violations as petty as a broken tail light. “It’s a hungry system,” she reflected. When men were about to be paroled out, she took to warning them: “Make sure everything’s working on your car—because they would be violated for something that small.”
As time went on, Lillian found her job almost intolerably stressful. “I just saw all the inequities,” she said. It didn’t seem right to be drawing such a nice salary off the misery of other human beings, most of them people of color. She worried something fundamental might shift within her; at one point, she asked her family to please let her know if they ever noticed her personality starting to change.
By the time she quit her job in 1996, Lillian couldn’t wait to leave. She walked out of the CCC with a folder of poems that the men inside had given her. Around that time, plans were coalescing for a new federal lockup in Herlong, not far from Susanville. Lillian, who had spent years traveling around California selling locals on the benefits of a prison in their backyard, went to protest it.
In an absurd stroke of journalistic luck, my Airbnb host in Susanville was Quincy McCourt, one of the city’s five councilmembers. He had never worked at the prisons, but like most people in town, he had a connection to them: His dog, Millie, had been trained by one of the men incarcerated at the CCC. Quincy remembered how the man cried when saying goodbye to Millie the day he picked her up at the prison.
Quincy’s true love is the natural world, and he grew up in a good place for it, surrounded by the Sierra Nevadas. For a long time, Susanville’s main industries involved cultivation of the natural world: agriculture, mills. The logging trucks used to go up and down Main Street all day long. But as the second half of the 20th century wore on, the mills left town, and family farms dwindled.
Quincy introduced me to Greg Baston, a retired prison guard who lived in Janesville, the town over. After graduating from high school in 1978, Greg had gone to work at a grocery store in Susanville. For eight years, he made decent wages and benefits. Then the store sold to a non-union competitor, and his pay went from $13.50 to $10 an hour overnight, a $9-per-hour pay cut in today’s wages. Greg took stock of his life—a wife, two small children—and went to work at the CCC.
Greg had taken his prison job out of economic necessity, but the money he made from it effectively allowed him to move up the economic ladder to enjoy the sort of comfortable, middle-class lifestyle that seems increasingly out of reach in the United States. Some of his coworkers couldn’t bear it, and quit, but Greg never had any problems. For him, the prison was just a job.
“I had a family I was raising, and I wanted to take care of that,” he told me. “It was my number one priority.” He put in 30 years, long enough to claim his pension, and retired on Christmas Day in 2015.
The prisons brought prosperity to many of Susanville’s residents, but their presence had also produced a stratified economy: One class of people lived well while the other struggled, working hard for little pay. After High Desert was built, a Walmart came to town, and many local businesses folded, unable to compete.
“You could see the little shops just closing,” Lillian recalled. Chain stores at the east end of town, which had proliferated in the years after the second prison’s construction, paid very little. Many of Quincy’s friends had master’s degrees but made barely over minimum wage. Plenty of them worked for the government, too—the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service or the Department of Fish and Wildlife. But workers outside the prisons didn’t have the benefit of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the state prison guard’s union, which Gilmore has called “the most powerful lobby group in California.” In 1998, the union spent $2.3 million helping elect Governor Gray Davis. Four years later, he gave them a 33.67 percent pay raise over five years.
Those wages went further in Susanville than they did in LA or San Francisco. I met Tim Nobles at his prefab construction company, one of the biggest nongovernmental employers in Lassen County, which he operates out of one of Susanville’s former sawmills. A strong believer in unions, Tim spent over $50,000 a month on his employees’ health insurance; still, he had trouble competing with the prison for workers. “If I tried to match some of the wages out there, I wouldn’t be in business,” he told me.
It frustrated Tim how the money people made at the prison didn’t seem to translate to a vibrant community or thriving local economy. “We have these prisons which create really good jobs, especially for our area,” he said. “But our town just seems to just be dying. I can go to towns that are half the size of Susanville that have more dining, more restaurants, more bars.” To Tim, it felt like a self-perpetuating cycle: Locals were less likely to take a chance on starting up their own business when the prisons offered stability and a comfortable retirement; there were few options for dining or entertainment; people with money to spend went to Reno to spend it; and so on. All the shuttered storefronts uptown started to make sense.
Tim also saw a link between vanishing economic opportunities across the U.S.—stagnant wages, the destruction of organized labor—and California’s incarceration rates. “Private sector unions have been destroyed since Ronald Reagan,” he told me. “I think we do lock up way too many people—but there’s no good jobs out there anymore!” It was all connected: Fewer good jobs meant that more people ended up in prison, but it also made prison labor artificially attractive, because it was some of the only work left that came with great benefits, a living wage, and an early, comfortable retirement.
Even Tim, with his thriving independent business and his frustration over the prisons’ impact on his hometown, wasn’t immune to those incentives. An ineluctable penchant for Motocross had left him barely insurable, with huge medical costs even after the Affordable Care Act passed. So in 2014, his wife went to work as an office tech at High Desert State Prison. Through her, the prison system gave him something that neither the state of California nor the federal government would have offered otherwise: high-quality, affordable health insurance.
Amidst the chaos and confusion of the Dixie Fire, it wasn’t difficult for Duane and Timothy to convince other men incarcerated at the CCC to start fighting back. “It felt like it was the perfect time to jump on board,” Duane told me. “There’s a lot of people who feel like I feel, but they lack a voice.” The two men sent in the grievances they’d collected. “Magically,” Duane said, “we received a new generator— the power never goes off anymore.”
On August 14, Duane and Timothy wrote to Governor Newsom, demanding an expedited closure for the CCC, and detailing the retaliation they had faced in the wake of news about the closure. “Since the announcement by your office and the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that CCC will be shut down, we have constantly experienced abuse in some form or another,” the letter read. “Currently this mistreatment is manifesting itself in unconstitutional restrictions to our access to yard and dayroom recreation, no power and medical staff that have joined in with correctional staff to downplay health hazards.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Newsom didn’t respond. So they wrote to Dianne Feinstein, CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison, and the Commission on Judicial Performance. They wrote to Newsom again, attaching two pages of supporting signatures from the other incarcerated men. Duane said that nobody ever wrote back.
None of the petitions mentioned the prospect of the men’s freedom. The state had made it clear when they announced the prison closures that there would be no early releases. “It just means they’re gonna be transferred to another prison in another small town in California,” Duane’s daughter Iman told me. “That’s not prison reform.”
Meanwhile, life inside the CCC was becoming intolerable. Duane told me that the prison had become so understaffed that it was hardly operational. “It’s a place to warehouse human beings,” he said. He could tell the guards were terrified of losing their jobs. “Eventually this place will close, they believe,” he said. “They’re leaving to go to different places where they can provide for their family.”
On March 12, Timothy wrote me a letter describing the conditions he and the other men were facing because of staffing shortages. “CCC has not only become non-operational, but uninhabitable for human living and development.” He went on: “We are often forced to remain in our cell for twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes a day. The fifteen minutes we are given is by a choice to either use the telephone or to take a shower.” Every time one of them had tried to call me and I didn’t pick up, because I was sleeping or on my computer or simply not paying attention, it meant that they had chosen to forego a shower that day. “Our daily atmosphere,” Timothy wrote, “is to expect nothing at all but learn as much as possible [about] how to remain with a sane conscience.”
In an emailed statement, CDCR said that staffing vacancies had caused “intermittent suspension” of some operations at the prison but denied that people are ever kept in their cells for nearly 24 hours a day.
I wasn’t sure how much of this Duane had told his daughter during their infrequent phone conversations. When we spoke, Iman referenced an article in the New York Times about the controversy over the prison closure, which had focused mainly on the frustration of Susanville residents.
“I get it,” Iman said. “People need jobs . . . but I think we should also take into account, like, those are people in there. It’s not machines, it’s not something you can make money off of, turn on and off when the day ends. Those are people that have lives—yes, they made bad decisions, but they have families. I don’t know how else to say—they’re people.”
When he announced his plan to shutter two state prisons by 2025, Governor Newsom called prison closure a “core value” of his administration. But in communicating the decision to close the CCC to the residents of Susanville, the state hadn’t presented a vision of prison closure that affirmed life, community, a healthy economy—that offered anything other than a sudden lack. Why would anybody in Susanville, especially people whose jobs were tied to the prison, support that?
CURB organizers had tried to reach out to Susanville residents to discuss their competing vision for the town’s future. “I think it’s really important to meet people where they’re at,” Courtney Hanson told me. “We all have a limited understanding based on our unique perspective and what experiences we’ve had or haven’t had.” But they hadn’t succeeded in reaching many people—nobody I spoke to in Susanville had been contacted by an organizer or even really knew about the group—and they hadn’t gotten very far with the people they did reach. Most residents didn’t return their emails, and locals sympathetic to the cause of prison closure didn’t want to rock the boat; the prison would go or stay, but they had to keep living alongside their neighbors.
When I asked people in Susanville about CURB’s argument that the state of California had a responsibility to provide a better alternative for prison-dependent towns facing closures, most seemed to think the idea was too fanciful to even consider. Arian Hart, the chair of the local tribal council, seemed skeptical of the notion that state government owed Susanville a just transition. “Yeah, I mean, I really can’t….like, you’re talking reparation type of stuff,” he said, laughing.
“The state has the power to do whatever they want,” Mike McCourt, Quincy’s father, told me. Mike moved away from Susanville in 2020, but he still felt invested in the place that he had called home for so long. He had fond memories of Susanville—he recalled how, after he first moved to town in 1967 at just seventeen, the woman who owned the Grand Café kept him fed, selling him soup for a quarter. Mike felt like the state government didn’t really care about what happened to Susanville. “You can have all the injunctions you want, but if it’s made its mind up and it’s not efficient for the state’s budget, you’re history,” he told me.
This pessimism, I thought, could be linked to any number of things: a deep-seated suspicion of the state in communities that have long been disenfranchised; the feeling of political alienation common in rural areas; the general sense of most people living in America that government is not really working for them. These sorts of feelings couldn’t be uprooted by a single conversation with an organizer—it might take a lifetime of listening and arguing. Ultimately, Courtney told me, CURB was focused on the big picture. The office of the Legislative Analyst had determined back in 2020 that, given declines in the state prison population, California could save money by closing at least five prisons by 2025. There was only so much their coalition could do. “We’re very concerned with what’s going on on the ground in Susanville, and at the same time, we’re fighting more broadly for the state to commit to closing 10 prisons by 2025,” she said.
Quincy saw that the prisons had not been “the end-all-be-all savior of our city—It’s clearly not, otherwise we’d be better off than we are.” But he never had the chance to talk with CURB organizers about their ideas. Quincy was also elected to represent the people of Susanville, and the majority of the city’s residents—at least, those who had any say in the matter—wanted the CCC to stay open, and so he was supporting that effort.
In August 2021, a Lassen County superior court judge found that the CDCR had skipped over a number of bureaucratic steps in trying to shutter the CCC, and delayed the closure until an environmental review and other measures take place. In the meantime, Quincy was looking for other solutions. He had been working on an economic development plan for the city, which more and more people were starting to take seriously as the threat of prison closure loomed. For the first time anyone could remember, thanks to Quincy and Arian, the city, the county, and the tribal council were all working together.
Despite the prisons, the city’s budget is threadbare and has been for years—there’s no money for major projects, and local government offices remain seriously understaffed. When I asked Quincy what he might do if the state simply gave Susanville the $122 million that closing the CCC had been projected to save, he wrote out a list: a four-year college, a community arts center, a bypass to revitalize the Uptown district. Maybe the CCC could focus solely on reentry, or be converted into a data center.
Quincy believed deeply that people could change, whether they had done something that landed them in prison or were just set in their ways. “I’m probably more of an idealist than anything,” he told me. And he believed his town could change too, even if he didn’t know for sure what that might look like yet.
True change may require the kind of coalitions that Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes about in Golden Gulag. The book concludes with another bus ride, but this time, it’s the precursor to an incredible organizing feat: rural residents and urban anti-prison activists coming together for a conference in Fresno about the fight for environmental justice and against prisons. The gathering is an unlikely one—“for quite some time each group imagined that the other, in a general way, was the reason for its struggles,” Gilmore writes—which is precisely why it’s so powerful.
In Fresno, that solidarity had come about because organizers managed to link the struggles of two groups that seemed impossible to unite. In Susanville, the pandemic and the city’s remote location had thwarted organizing attempts. The lawsuit and the state’s wall of silence calcified the divisions that already existed, and exacerbated intolerable conditions for the town’s incarcerated residents. The free residents of Susanville never saw their fate as tied to the people behind bars. On its own, each group was easy to dismiss: the locals arguing to keep their prison, who would not find much sympathy from liberal, urban California; the incarcerated organizers, battling a system designed to keep them hidden and silenced; and the activists, whose abolitionist aims are constantly being waved away as extreme, unrealistic.
But more prisons will close in California, and those closures will bring with them the same window of possibility, the same choices that Susanville offered. And they will show, once again, how we are all tied to these prisons—free and incarcerated people alike. We may not work at them, we may not be locked inside them, but they were built in our name.