Watch July 24 on PBS
Prison Town USA
What happens when a struggling rural community tries to revive its economy by inviting prisons in? The story of four families living in a modern-day prison town, as told in "Prison Town, USA," is a riveting look at one of the most striking phenomena of our times: a prison-building and incarceration boom unprecedented in American history.
The Tyler family was just passing through Susanville, California, when father Lonnie was arrested for shoplifting $40 worth of groceries and diapers. Lonnie got a 16-month sentence, leaving his wife Jen and their kids stranded in "prison town." Dawayne Brasher worked in Susanville's lumber mills for nearly 20 years until the last one closed in 2004. His only choices were to leave his hometown or seek work at the huge prison complexes that have sprung up in the area. Gabe Jones liked his job at Mike O'Kelly's Morning Glory Dairy, but the prospect of earning much more money as a prison guard finally proved irresistible — sending him off to guard academy. O'Kelly, a third-generation dairyman, finds his business endangered when the prisons threaten to abrogate their "good neighbor" buy-local policy.
Stories like these are increasingly common in rural America where, during the 1990s, a prison opened every 15 days. The United States now has the dubious distinction of incarcerating more people per capita than any other country in the world. Yet this astonishing jailing of America has been little noted because many of the prisons have opened in remote areas like Susanville. "Prison Town, USA" examines one of the country's biggest prison towns, a place where a new correctional economy encompasses not only prisoners, guards and their families, but the whole community.