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A Punishment Profiteer

"The people of Susanville have more to offer the world than caging."

drive up post dixie fire

For nearly a year, the city of Susanville has been fighting tooth and nail to keep the state of California from shutting down one of two prisons that are its lifeblood. Without the prison, and the millions in state funding that keep it running, the town may well be forced to look for other means to survive, detached from the incarceration of its own residents. Indeed, the town would have to forge a new path forward, one that builds a new kind of economic stability. But that’s not the immediate future Susanville officials want. Instead, they have sued the California Department of Corrections, Governor Gavin Newsom, and other state officials who set into motion the prison closure. Shutting down the California Correctional Center, the lawsuit asserted, would “cause the City of Susanville to suffer massive economic loss.”

As writer Piper French chronicled in a feature on Susanville’s troubles published earlier this month, one voice that’s notably absent from this legal effort is that of the thousands of people imprisoned within city limits — residents with no voice or vote in the town’s affairs but who are important for purposes of political power and representation in the legislature. These residents count only when Susanville wants them to count.

That changed last week, when three men incarcerated at the CCC — two of them featured in French’s story, an editorial collaboration between Inquest and Bolts filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the ongoing legal dispute between Susanville and California. Their lawyers, Shakeer Rahman and A. Dami Animashaun, run through numerous administrative arguments why the CCC should close as scheduled. And in addition, they also make a compelling case for their clients’ stake in the controversy — which, deep down, is really a controversy about how Susanville might, if city and state leaders so chose, become a model for an economy that doesn’t depend on human bondage to survive.

Excerpted below are portions of these incarcerated men’s legal brief, which have been edited for style and clarity.

This case concerns a city’s insistence that it must remain economically dependent on prisoners. The City of Susanville has asked this Court to halt the State of California’s plan to close the California Correctional Center, one of two state-owned and operated prisons located within the city. That plan was announced pursuant to the process established by Senate Bill 118, which was enacted in 2020. SB 118 ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to select a specific state-owned and operated prison for closure to be announced by January 2022. CDCR chose CCC under this mandate. Susanville asserts that its personal financial need for prisoners requires this Court to keep CCC open instead. If that claim is accepted, it might be the first time since the enactment of the 13th Amendment that an American court has vindicated a demand for financial reliance on human bondage.

Amici are prisoners incarcerated at CCC who have been closely monitoring this case due to their personal perspective on what is at stake. Their perspective is important for analyzing SB 118’s mandate that CDCR prioritize closure of prisons with relatively high operational costs or costly infrastructure needs compared to inmate capacity, flexible housing assignment capacity, and long-term operational value. Susanville claims that CDCR violated this mandate by selecting CCC for closure. But as amici explain below, the evidence already presented through Susanville’s petition establishes that the 60-year-old CCC has a lower design capacity than 31 of the state’s 32 men’s prisons, needs over half a billion dollars in repairs, and is difficult to humanely operate during wildfires. All of this makes CCC an exceptionally strong candidate for closure under [the law’s] criteria. In addition, amici know firsthand the grave conditions that prisoners are experiencing inside CCC. This perspective, which until now was not raised in this case, has created a rare instance of prison officials agreeing with prisoners that a particular prison must be closed.

If Susanville’s claim is accepted, it might be the first time since the enactment of the 13th Amendment that an American court has vindicated a demand for financial reliance on human bondage.

Amici also offer historical and political perspective on the economic concerns pleaded by Susanville. For decades Susanville has owed its prosperity to the bondage of prisoners shipped from far away, not unlike how barely a century and half ago much of the country was financially dependent on another form of bondage eventually abolished as wicked and grotesque. From that perspective, demanding a continued supply of prisoners to quench one’s economic needs may someday be widely understood as grotesque too. So might this Court’s legal vindication of that demand. But this does not mean Susanville and other places that became financially dependent on prisoners must be blighted by the state’s choice to no longer make them punishment destinations. The people of Susanville have more to offer the world than caging. For that reason, amici and their political supporters have promoted a “just transition” framework to invest a portion of taxpayer savings from CCC’s closure into Susanville’s job creation, environmental protection (an issue with particular resonance for Susanville, which was gravely imperiled by the Dixie fire last year), and infrastructure improvement. That framework could make Susanville a statewide model for a just transition from carceral economies.

Amici’s experience of imprisonment inside CCC vividly illustrates why Penal Code section 5003.7 requires CDCR to prioritize aging, low-capacity, over-crowded, high-operational-cost prisons for closure: the only humane and cost-effective way to address the harms at these facilities is to shutter them altogether, not try to endlessly reform, repair, and rebuild those harms. In that light, amici’s perspective in this case is a rare instance of state prisoners, state prison administrators, and the Governor of California all publicly agreeing that a particular prison ought to be closed. This further confirms that CDCR’s choice to close CCC was rational and fully within the agency’s discretion. To begin with just one vivid example of the inhumane conditions that prisoners are experiencing at CCC, during this month amici’s cells flooded from rainwater due to leaks in their ceilings, forcing them to use soap to seal those leaks on their own. These conditions are not isolated or new but the constant reality at CCC. Potentially related to this frequent flooding, one prisoner reports witnessing black mold across CCC and also observed prison staff simply painting over this mold. That prisoner, who has been moved across four different CDCR facilities over the years, characterized incarceration at CCC as by far the worst experience I have ever had. Amici also reported just this month that toilets in multiple yard blocks have not been flushing and are full of a green bacteria similar to algae. Regardless of whether these individual accounts of conditions within CCC are entered as evidence in this case, the rare convergence of both a prison’s prisoners and administrators agreeing that the prison must be closed contradicts Susanville’s claims that CDCR’s selection of CCC under the section 5003.7 mandate was arbitrary and capricious.

Amici’s perspective in this case is a rare instance of state prisoners, state prison administrators, and the Governor of California all publicly agreeing that a particular prison ought to be closed.

The harms inside CCC become multiplied by another characteristic that Susanville’s petition emphasizes: the prison’s proximity to wildfires that could engulf it or cut off its supply of power, water, and other utilities during the hottest summer months. Susanville notes that it initiated this writ proceeding in July 2021 while the city was imperiled by the Dixie fire, the largest single wildfire in recorded California history. The city argues that the danger of similar future wildfires is a reason this Court should force CDCR to keep CCC open. For amici, the opposite is true: their risk of becoming engulfed by wildfires, suffocated by toxic smoke, or cut off from basic utilities is yet more reason to close CCC, not to judicially force CDCR to keep filling it. During the Dixie fire, amici experienced firsthand the grave danger that wildfires pose for CCC. Amici report that, even as the fire came within seven miles of CCC and evacuation orders were in effect throughout surrounding areas, no effort or intention was made to evacuate any of CCC’s thousands of prisoners. Amicus curiae Mr. Noel wrote that he and his fellow prisoners “could see the flames of the fire from our windows” at the same time that prison staff indicated there was no intent to evacuate them.

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Conditions inside CCC during the Dixie fire were unlivable. Smoke filled the prison’s buildings and cells. Amici along with Susanville’s other incarcerated residents reported that the fire exposed them to constant, inescapable smoke inhalation. Amici choked on the smoke that filled their cells and blanketed the area with ash, and they could not breathe without covering their faces with wet towels. These conditions were especially grave for prisoners like amicus curiae Mr. Palm, who suffers from chronic asthma that was exacerbated by the smoke inhalation and toxic air quality. At the same time that CCC staff were equipped with respirators and oxygen, amici reported that prisoners were forced to go without masks that could protect them from smoke and particulate matter. As a result of the fires, prisoners were without electricity, lights, ventilation, or running water for at least four weeks, and prison staff were reassigned to other facilities, forcing prisoners to remain locked in their cells around the clock without access to the day room or phones to contact their anxious loved ones. Prisoners were also forced to go weeks without showering or washing, and they described being caged in dark, smoke-filled cells for 24 hours a day while prison staff enjoyed power in their facilities and, according to reports from amici and their fellow prisoners, watched television or played video games.

These kinds of barbaric, inhumane conditions are unacceptable in a civilized society. And all of this occurred during the same months that Susanville was demanding that this Court require for CCC to remain full for the city’s financial benefit. CDCR is entitled to conclude that its risk of both legal liability and moral responsibility for this kind of grave harm is unacceptable or at least not worth the purported financial benefits. The future risk of similar suffering is reason to close CCC, not keep it open. This Court should heed that risk and consider those stakes in deciding how far this case proceeds. But for this Court’s injunction, CDCR had resolved to close CCC by June 30, 2022. If Susanville’s lawsuit continues delaying the closure of CCC further, then any death, injuries, or constitutional violations that another wildfire season might cause for CCC’s prisoners or staff will have been dangers that CDCR tried to avoid but that rulings in this lawsuit facilitated. Susanville’s petition also notes that CCC’s prisoners protect the city from wildfires. The city claims that “loss of these firefighter resources will heighten the potential for wildfire-related destruction to the City of Susanville” and urges this Court to treat CCC’s prison labor as a reason to keep the prison full, so that prisoners can keep fighting fires to protect the city. While the next section of this brief deals in more detail with questions surrounding economic dependence on prisoners, for now amici submit that the State of California has other prisons available from which to staff its fire camps. 

But even putting that aside, the State of California is not required as a legal matter to fight wildfires using imprisoned people. The state has the option of properly paying people who are not caged and chained to fight its fires instead. As noted below, the state could even invest some of the hundreds of millions of dollars that taxpayers will save from CCC’s closure on those jobs. All those political choices belong to the State of California, not the City of Susanville.

The legal claims in this lawsuit are ultimately pretextual. The real purpose of the case is to keep CCC open so the City of Susanville can keep profiting off it. The city openly admits this. How but for the bondage of Susanville’s caged residents, the city repeatedly asks this Court, will its free residents run their businesses, profit off their real estate investments, and fund their children’s education?

How but for the bondage of Susanville’s caged residents, the city repeatedly asks this Court, will its free residents run their businesses, profit off their real estate investments, and fund their children’s education?

Amici offer two points of perspective on this question. First, amici contend that a jurisdiction demanding continued shipments of prisoners in order to satisfy the free population’s financial needs has an unacceptably shameful legacy in this country, and this Court should be wary of honoring a demand like that, just as state officials likely are as well. Second, amici contend that this binary choice between caging and blight is a false one, and Susanville is well positioned to become a statewide model for a third altogether more promising option: a just transition away from economies dependent on imprisonment.

Susanville’s repeated invocation of its population numbers also requires context. The city asserts that its population of 15,064 includes 4,081 prisoners at CCC. In addition, the population of the High Desert State Prison also in Susanville is around 3,181. These numbers from Susanville’s petition mean that over half the adult population are prisoners whose views about this proceeding no doubt diverge from those of the city’s free residents. And unlike the latter group, prisoners like amici are denied the right to elect Susanville’s political representatives even while their bondage has long increased the city’s census numbers for the purpose of determining electoral representation in state and federal legislatures. When considered in that light, Susanville’s legal agenda — demands to preserve a jurisdiction’s political and economic power that has been inflated using the bodies of shackled people who lack the same rights as their freer and wealthier neighbors — harkens back to the country’s shameful history of white residents of places with large populations of enslaved people using courts, politicians, mobs, and eventually arms to insist that ending human bondage will upend their way of life. That history should never be approximated, let alone repeated. 

Amici recognize that it is the state’s choices over the decades that made Susanville so economically dependent on incarceration. But the reality is that California’s effort to turn away from policies that over the years shipped busloads of fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, and other familial heroes away from their homes and into cages in places like Susanville will require ending the city’s financial dependence on a supply of prisoners. And on that point it’s worth noting that this is not the first time Susanville’s residents have resolved to defy the State of California’s plans to close CCC. Half a century ago, when the prison had not even existed for a decade, the state had already projected that its costs outweighed its value and ordered the prison’s closure, with the state Director of Corrections announcing: “Continuation of the Susanville facility is deemed economically unsound.” Not only is that determination even more undeniable today, when CCC is 60 years old, requires half a billion dollars in repairs, and has a lower design capacity than 30 of the state’s 31 other men’s prisons , it is now legislatively mandated by SB 118.

The fact that CCC is among the prisons that the State of California needs to close does not mean Susanville must face economic blight, though. This Court need not accept Susanville’s assertion that the only choice the city faces is between destitution and forever remaining a punishment profiteer. Other political paths are possible, including the “just transition” framework that is gaining political momentum as a restorative strategy to end the era of incarceration-based economies while establishing new opportunities for prosperity in places that became financially dependent on prisoners. This framework and similar community-investment concepts would direct some of the hundreds of millions of dollars saved by CCC’s closure into securing Susanville’s financial future in industries that are more sustainable than imprisonment, including through programs for job creation, environmental protection, emergency management, and infrastructure improvement. These initiatives could build on California’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act as well as models instituted in other states “to repurpose closed prisons for a range of uses outside of the correctional system, including a movie studio, a distillery, and urban redevelopment.”9 Those examples are just a clue into what California, long a leader of industrial and entrepreneurial innovation, could choose to pursue. Overall, proposals like a “just transition” framework are both common sense and morally imperative: rather than requiring unsustainable preservation of industries whose harm the state is trying to reduce, these proposals would invest in more promising economic arrangements that could create a new era of prosperity for cities like Susanville.

This Court need not accept Susanville’s assertion that the only choice the city faces is between destitution and forever remaining a punishment profiteer.

Respondents do not raise these political prospects in their filings, likely because neither section 5003.7 nor any other currently enacted law requires the State of California to invest savings from prison closure into more sustainable industries. But, for their part, what CDCR and Governor Newsom did was voluntarily provide a level of notice and opportunity to plan for CCC’s closure beyond the baseline that section 5003.7 requires, announcing the plan to close the prison in April 2021, nearly nine months prior to the January 2022 statutory notification deadline. (See Pet. at 2.) This advance notice gave Susanville a far longer time to prepare for a transition from dependence on prisoners than what the Legislature had mandated. While much of that time has instead been spent trying to win judicial preservation of Susanville’s incarceration economy alongside other efforts to delay CCC’s eventual closure into perpetuity, the city stands to win a much stronger and more assured future by joining amici in advancing political demands for a “just transition.” This Court should allow for those political prospects to be decided in the political forums where questions like this belong, rather than treating amici’s continued bondage in Susanville — a place where neither they nor CDCR wants them to be — as the only possible way to maintain the city’s economic future.

The bottom line is that Susanville’s demand that the state must keep overfilling a prison due to the city’s personal financial needs does not belong in a court. This demand is grotesque. If Susanville plans to continue pressing the demand, its resolution must depend on moral questions that the city’s free residents should address in their conscience and political questions that their elected representatives should address through the democratic process.

Image: Piper French