My understanding is that PBS will be airing a documentary this week entitled “Prison Town, USA”, about Susanville, California, where I currently reside. I have not seen this documentary nor have I read a detailed summary of its content; however, the subject matter clearly concerns our town in the context of having High Desert State Prison as its economic focal point. The Lassen County Times has already expressed some angst over the airing of this documentary, replete with the usual conservative sniping at “liberal” PBS and the media. I have mentioned the prison here and commented on the nature of the local prison culture in previous posts. I have been somewhat reticent to comment on this aspect of our community, in large part because I have friends who are employed at the prison – our local “gated” community, as someone once quipped – and their attitudes, demeanor and intelligence are the exception to the rule. Many clearly take the job of correctional officer, or CO as we call them here, out of necessity, historical circumstance or lack of opportunity – I rather doubt many intentionally choose it as a career path. Not everyone should be judged by the majority, despite the fact it is Homo sapiens’ inherent nature to do so.
The fact is that the prison culture of Susanville, although perhaps good for the local economy (an arguable point in and of itself), also brings with it a load of negative baggage that prison town proponents choose to ignore. I suspect the documentary may uncover or at least allude to the significant downside of being a prison town and having this information aired nationally probably scares the hell out of prison proponents. Social, educational and economic problems spawned by the presence of prison are swept under the rug locally and probably intentionally covered up at the state level. There is certainly no effort to calculate the long term effects to a community outside of the immediate economic benefit gained by establishing a facility housing an inmate population and its high-priced babysitters. But then, county boards of supervisors, city councils and other local government entities are not known for intellectual ability to consider anything other than short-term profit.
While there is a laundry list of negative issues with living in Prison Town, USA, my primary concern is the effect on education, both locally and as a larger cultural issue. The prime motivation for working at the prison is money. More to the point, the prime motivation is the ability to garner a huge salary without the need to demonstrate skill or intellect. As one CO friend of mine pointed out, about all you need to qualify for employment in the prison system is a heartbeat. Apparently, you also only need an education to the 9th grade. I can think of no other profession, other than prostitution, that rewards individuals so handsomely for having absolutely no skill and no intellectual ability.
Starting COs make somewhere in excess of $7000 per month…starting teachers make something like $2000 per month. We build more prisons than universities or colleges. This alone is an indictment on the nature of American priorities…and ultimately a recipe for societal collapse. In Susanville, this is further compounded by the fact that the teachers are fighting to fend off a cap on their benefits, while COs enjoy significant raises and lots of overtime. While the teacher’s union is certainly large and prominent in California (and maligned heavily by conservative radio talk show hosts) they are no match for the correctional officer union, which basically has the California state government by the nuts. Teachers, who have skills, education, and dedication, must constantly fight for benefits and salary, while COs, who have basically no skills, are barely literate and whose only goal is apparently the accumulation of wealth, generally get whatever they want. And when the correctional officers get what they want, the cost is paid by teachers, other service providers, health care, environmental protection, and the other priorities a decent society should focus upon.
There are other effects as well. I have been asked to several “career day” events at the local schools. Many of the organizers have explicitly stated the goal of these events is to show students, particularly young boys, that there are other careers out there that will be far more rewarding. It is difficult, however, to compete against the vision of large houses, expensive vacations, ATVs, motorcycles, huge four-wheel drive trucks and lots of other “toys” that a $7000/month income can provide. The example provided by COs is generally that kids can ultimately get lots of goodies without having to do much educationally or vocationally. And many of the COs are young, bringing with them an immaturity and disrespect for anything that doesn’t personally benefit them that would normally be weeded out by educational programs or vocations requiring actual commitment, learning and competition. It is not surprising to me that most of my CO friends are older, have been in the system a while, and have avoided (or at least survived) the social and moral pitfalls entrapping so many of their colleagues.
While I malign the COs, it is the system and not the individuals that are the problem. That greater society allows such a system to exist is the ultimate problem, not that individuals take advantage of it. And of course there is a cost to the CO’s themselves that is rarely considered. While the job itself requires little in the way of skill or education, no one can doubt that it is one of the least desirable jobs on the planet. One of the reasons the salaries are so high is that most people don’t think the salary is worth the cost of the job (although one of the reasons I have no problem maligning individuals is that clearly most consciously choose the job for personal financial gain, without weighing the effects to themselves, their families, and the community). Many of my friends in the system actively discourage others from applying for the job – for the intellectually astute, at some point financial gain is not worth the sacrifice in intellect and self esteem.
Ultimately, the identification of Susanville as “Prison Town, USA” is not a moniker to be desired. It is one to be shunned at all costs. While we have fallen into the trap because of poor leadership, it would be wise for any community contemplating such a move to think long and hard about it. Hopefully, this documentary will scare the hell out of any community contemplating construction of a prison…and finally begin to expose the dark “belly of the beast” that is our state prison system.