Prison Valley, ‘Prison-nomics’ in Cañon City, Colorado (web-documentary)


It’s exam period at UWF and I am studying my various courses : Marketing Strategy, Information Sources for Business Decisions, International Business and Current Social Problems. In the course material of the two last ones, I read content that made me want to watch that documentary I had heard about a couple of times now : Prison Valley. While we extensivelly discusses the crime issue in our Current Social Problems-class, the part of our International Business-class about privatization of public services as a way of achieving growth in global service industries (like prison management) pushed me to type into my browser. Here’s what it’s about… and what I think about it.

In Cañon City, Colorado (36,000 inhabitants, 13 prisons), prisons are part of people’s daily lives. There’s even a sense of pride to being host-city of this industry : orange, the color of the inmates’ uniforms, is overrepresented on the streets. The Riviera Motel, in which David Dufresne and Philippe Brault, the two producers of the web-documentary, stayed during their journey, is all orange.

One in six employees of Colorado’s Department of Corrections works in the small Fremont County, the county of Cañon City. But the importance of the prison industry is not a local, nor a statewide specificity : it is a national issue. While in Germany there are 93 prisoners per 100,000 country residents and in France they are 103 per 100,000 people, in the United States they are 750 ! This is more than 1 in 100 adults… I see this as a social problem, and some of Canon City’s inhabitants share the same opinion, including the sheriff. However, this stream of prisoners brings jobs to this small city too, and they’re recession-proof jobs too.


Colorado's State prisons manufacture license plates

But, with 13 prisons in a single county, there must be more than just philantropy towards the locals. In the county, public prisons are mixed to private, or for-profit prisons. Not that the State of Colorado stopped building prisons… in fact, there’s one new facility currently being finalized and supposed to open in August 2010 : Colorado State Penitentiary II. Lobbyists working for private companies have convinced the State the following deal : the private sector finances the construction of the facility, and the State provides a constant flow of inmates to be held in jail. Sounds crazy, but that’s basically how the system works. Of course, the longer the prisonners’ stay, the more money goes to the (private) prison-facility. And the documentary points out another side of the system : inmate labor. For example, all of Colorado’s license plates are manufactured in the State’s prisons. It’s one of the best paid jobs for inmates, they make 50$ a month stamping them. Some of the new state prison’s cells are also welded and assembled by inmates of the Fremont Correctional Facility, and that’s how the circle closes : prison inmates (employed by Unicor, which is the trade name of the Federal Prison Industries) provide cheap labor to build for-profit prisons ; in other words, the customer becomes the supplier, who provides labor at unbeatable prices.


Cartoon by John Jonik

In Europe, prisoners work too, but outsourcing the whole prison management seems unthinkable to us Europeans. We might not have the best system either. In France, for instance, prisons are so overcrwded that the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture calls in “inhuman and degrading treatment“. The web-documentary utilizes the potential of the web2.0 to educate us about the social problem of crime and, more specifically, emprisonment. You don’t have to visit every discussion forum that is proposed to you between the different parts of the movie, nor do you have to read one of the explanatory websites that give deeper insight into the movie’s subject. But it is definitelly worthwhile watching… just don’t grab a bowl of popcorn, because this web-documentary is designed to be (very) interactive.


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