The New Jim Crow Is Alive And Well In This California Town And Its Prison
Jobs are not a justification for psychologically and emotionally torturing human beings. As a caged resident of Susanville, I experienced consistent abuse.
August 24, 2021 at 5:00 pm
Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity's.
“I see some n****rs in the room,” one white prison guard said to another. He was referring to my cellmate and I, who were caged in The California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville. On this occasion, we were standing in phone booth-sized cages in our underwear. He and I were being punished (and threatened with solitary confinement) for asking why our property was illegally taken from our cell. Over the course of an hour, at least two other guards used the n-word in front of us. After they were done with us, we were forced to run back to our cells in our boxer shorts. It was snowing.
Now, Susanville, California — the most racist place I’ve ever lived — is in danger from the encroaching Dixie Fire, one of the largest blazes in history. Each year, wildfires in California get progressively worse. The safety of people impacted by the fire should be everyone’s top concern. This includes the thousands of people incarcerated in Lassen County and the surrounding areas. The threat of the Dixie Fire only underlines why it’s imperative we do everything possible to move forward on prison closures in California, an essential step toward mitigating the harm caused by environmental disasters that threaten our most vulnerable populations.
From 2012 to 2013, I was warehoused in CCC, one of two prisons that were scheduled for deactivation in Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2021-2022 Budget, part of a criminal justice reform strategy heavily supported by various voter initiatives. Many of Susanville’s residents who profit from CCC are angry and scared about its closure, and took legal action to stop it. Recently, a Lassen County judge granted the city of Susanville a temporary restraining order, halting the state’s work to close the prison.
The fear and frustration of the people of Susanville is understandable. The California Department of Corrections (CDCR), which is managing prison closure, is notoriously inept. The state should be helping people impacted by the prison closure achieve a just transition to new careers. But to be clear, if towns cannot financially survive without depending on systemic racism, we have got to rethink how our economies work.
Jobs are not a justification for psychologically and emotionally torturing human beings. As a caged resident of Susanville, I experienced consistent abuse. Susanville is described as a “happy little prison town” that has created a pastoral life for many of its residents. I had a different experience.
I remember one instance in particular, when a CD player was stolen from outside the cell door of a Latino man, during a time when only the Black incarcerated population was out from lockdown. Racial segregation like this is common in prisons. The Latinos suspected we — the Black folks — stole it.
The air was thick with fear masked as aggression. There was about to be a riot.
At this point, I was 20 years old and had Two Strikes for my robbery case. Prison culture provided me with two choices: participate in the riot and possibly receive life in prison for a Third Strike; or not participate, and potentially be killed anyway — by a fellow incarcerated person, or by a guard's stray bullet. California Correctional officers are authorized to shoot live rounds into situations they deem to be violent.
I remember being frozen with fear. My vision tunneled and I couldn’t swallow. The front lines of each group approached each other, slowly, to throw first blows. Just then, two white guards came out of their office, their guffaws echoing in the silent, cement cell block.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” one of them said, holding up the missing CD player. The guards laughed and tossed it towards one of the Latino men.
“We just wanted to see if you’d actually do it,” referring to the potentially deadly encounter mere moments away.
Susanville’s non-incarcerated population is almost completely white. Though I disagree with anyone’s decision to make money exploiting people's trauma, oppression, and bad choices, I understand that people in Susanville are humans who need to eat. It’s the California government who made them reliant on the punishment industry to survive, and it’s the state’s job to help them transition into less harmful means to sustain themselves.
I remember the reaction from CCC guards when they discovered the prison they were going to transfer us to in Soledad employed a predominantly Brown workforce.
“You heard their lieutenant over there is a Native American woman?” one white security squad officer said to another. The other officer asked, “What did they hire her for? To clean up?”
“Their [security] squad is a bunch of Indians and wetbacks down there anyway,” replied the first officer, dismissively. Leaving CCC’s blatant, egregious racism behind was one of the happiest days of my life. We all have that opportunity now.
Closing CCC — a 58-year-old facility in need of $503 million in infrastructure repairs — will save the state at least $173 million annually. The administration’s own Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that shutting down five adult prisons in California would save $1.5 billion per year by 2025; significant, but only a dent in our state’s $17 billion annual prison spending budget. CDCR will spend an average of $112,691 per imprisoned person next fiscal year. That’s triple the cost of an average college tuition in California.
These numbers make it clear that closing five prisons is nowhere near enough. Rather than shrinking from the complex task of prison closure, we must be bold. This is why advocacy groups like Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) are pushing to close at least ten prisons by 2025, to meaningfully impact the intersecting crises like climate change, racial justice and public health.
Incarceration economies must become a relic of the past if we are going to create a new vision for California’s future. Every dollar of wasteful prison spending could be better invested in healthy and sustainable communities, creating new fiscal opportunities across the state — especially in places like Susanville, which will need increased support when the Dixie Fire is under control, as we pray it will be soon.
Richie Reseda is an abolitionist-feminist content producer and organizer. He founded Question Culture, a social-impact record label; and co-founded Success Stories, a transformational feminist program for incarcerated men, and Initiate Justice, which organizes people directly impacted by incarceration to change laws to end it.