On October 8th, 2002, Jennifer and Lonnie Tyler were driving through the Lassen desert with their two kids, heading toward a job prospect in Nevada, and cash was running low. With the afternoon sun glinting off the snowy Sierras, neither of them noticed the glow emanating from a massive gray compound concealed in the hills ahead. As they pulled into Susanville, their baby started crying, and their eight year old, Jeremy, complained of stomach cramps. They hadn't had a real meal for two days. Lonnie was sentenced to 16 months in a Susanville prison for stealing $40 worth of food from the local grocery store. In most parts of the country, this offense might land him a few nights in jail. But Susanville is one of the country's biggest "prison towns," and petty offenders like Lonnie are prime candidates for the corrections machine.
Prison Town, USA follows several Susanville residents over a two year period: a laid-off mill worker turned guard, a tenacious dairy owner fighting the behemoth "Prison Industries," and a marooned inmate family. With these engrossing stories and a background chorus of vivid voices, from "lifer" inmates to local ranchers who say they were duped, prison-boosting politicians to teenagers looking for a way out of town, Prison Town, USA illuminates the impact of America's prison building frenzy on hundreds of towns that welcomed them into their communities.