At Folsom Prison…Live

I am not sure I remember the first time I heard Johnny Cash sing but I have been a fan since I was a little girl. There was just something about the tone of his voice it was always so beautiful to me.  As an adult, I grew to not only admire his music but Johnny the man. I have always been in awe of his live performance at Folsom Prison and for some crazy reason, I have always wanted to visit Folsom Prison because of Johnny.

On Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a coffeehouse in Roseville, CA, discussing the plan for the day with my friend Mike. He casually mentioned that he thought he would take me over to the little town of Folsom to walk around the shops. I responded: “Folsom? Wait…where the prison is? THE PLACE Johnny Cash performed three times?” In my mind, I’m thinking I have always wanted to see this place – I’m a huge fan of Johnny Cash, and of course I want to go to Folsom…seeing Folsom Prison is on my bucket list. Mike responded very cautiously: “Um, yes that would be the place.”  So I agreed to go to Folsom and suggested we skip the shops and visit the prison. Mike, still not sold on the idea, commented: “I don’t think we will be able to see anything, but I guess we can drive over there. You really want to go to Folsom Prison?” I replied: “Yep!” And with that we were on our way.

As we made the somewhat short drive to the prison, I was surprised to learn Mike had never even driven by it in the ten years he has lived there.  You know you are getting close long before you get to the entrance road – the razor fencing is a big indication. As you reach the road the prison is on, there’s an old looking sign which marks the entrance. As you turn down the road the first time, you have no idea what is in store for you. Just by turning into the entrance, you agree that you, your car and belongings are subject to search at anytime. There is a long winding road that guides you into the prison and along that road are daunting signs warning you:

–          Keep your doors locked
–          Do not stop or slow down for any reason
–          Your car is subject to search as you are on prison grounds
–          Do not under any circumstances pick up anyone
–          Do not turn around

Once you are on this path there is no turning back you are committed. About halfway down the road to Old Folsom is the turn off to New Folsom or California State Prison Sacramento.( On the road into New Folsom, the signs are much different but I’ll come back to that in another post. )

The first time, the drive in can feel like it is a long way, and the grounds are beautiful; if not for the razor fencing and the signs, you might think you were pulling into a ranch. I could see Mike was starting to feel a little anxious – the signs are every few feet and we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of the road. Of course, I saw this as the perfect opportunity to “punk him” – so I turned to him and said: “Hey can you make sure the doors are locked?” He said: “They are locked.” I did notice that he checked again to make sure. Then I said casually: “Nothing fell out of my bags when you got them out of the trunk when I arrived, right? It looks like your car is going to be searched.” He said: “Um I didn’t see anything.” I said: “Whew! Okay good.” (I was kidding, but he could not see that, and by now he was getting a little concerned about our safety…mostly mine.)  Finally, we reached the end of the road and right there in front of us were the tall granite walls and the guard towers. It feels like you have stepped back in time.

There’s something magnificent about the structure – almost castle like. I turned to Mike and asked him to stop – I wanted to grab a picture right there (several yards from the front gate and the guard post). He responded quickly and in a very anxious tone, both hands on the steering wheel: “Robyn I can’t stop it’s not allowed!!”  And then after a few seconds we both burst into laughter…mostly nervous laughter.

We pulled into the large parking lot right up to the gate and the guard post. We were greeted directly by the guard, a beautiful woman with a fresh manicure. I asked her if we would be permitted to take some pictures. Her response was quite interesting at the time, and I had no idea how her comments would linger with me…even now. She explained that we could take pictures but that we needed to park first. She was very specific about where to park; she was just as deliberate about instructing us on what we could and could not do on prison grounds. We were told emphatically to lock the car and that we could not take pictures of the guards or the prisoners. I was a little surprised that she mentioned prisoners, so I asked her were we going to see prisoners outside the walls?  She said yes, there are some who work outside the wall and even some on her staff. I thanked her for her help. As we were wrapping up our conversation with her, I commented on the view and the beauty of the prison grounds and it’s what she said next that I have not been able to shake: “Yes, but there’s nothing but monsters that live in here.”

So we parked our car, made sure it was locked, and started the short walk over toward the guard gate, the viewing spot, and the museum. As we approached the guard again on foot, we saw one of the inmates making his way toward the gate and speaking to the guard. They had a very friendly interaction. I noticed Mike slowed his stride a little but we forged on nonetheless. And the inmate disappeared into the post office that sits across the street from the guard post.

When you are standing there in front of the east gate, it looks exactly the way it does on TV and in all the old pictures. In spite of the fact that it has housed the toughest of the tough in its time, Folsom prison still has an interesting story of its own. The widely known facts are that it is the second oldest prison in California, opening July 26, 1880 – San Quentin is the oldest. The harsh conditions are a fact, and when it first opened, the cell doors were made of solid boiler plate with only a slot for eyes. In 1942, air holes were drilled and those doors are still there today. It was one of the first maximum security prisons and in its first years – December 13, 1895 through December 3 1937 – there were 93 prisoners executed by hanging.  In 1937, the method of execution was changed to a gas chamber and that is located even today at San Quentin (SQ).

Some of the lesser known facts about Folsom are: Johnny Cash did not serve time there, and that he performed three concerts for the inmates (1966, 1968, 1977). Folsom was initially built to house 1800 inmates. In 1968, there was only one prisoner to a cell and the programs were critical – almost every prisoner received an education and learned a trade. During that time, most of the prisoners who were released did not return to prison. Today, Folsom is home to approximately 4100 prisoners, and the programs are few if any. And sadly, many of those released return, whether for another crime or a parole violation.

As we stood in the viewing spot that day, there was a flurry of activity; guards, inmates, and other curious visitors. (The day we visited was not an approved visiting day for family and still there was a steady flow of people). As we were standing in the crosswalk, we could not help but recall the picture of Johnny Cash standing in that same spot. Things look almost exactly as they did on the day of his most famous 1968 concert. As I found myself standing just outside the East Gate of Folsom Prison, I could almost hear Johnny singing.  For a brief moment, I forgot I was standing just outside of one of the most famous prisons in the country, a place that houses “monsters.” And yet, in that brief moment as I’m taking a close up of the famous East Gate, a doe and her babies walked right in front of us. It was a striking moment, like something out of a movie, as these beautiful calm creatures leisurely strolled across the road. I’m still not clear where they came from but it was an awesome moment. I turned to Mike almost speechless and whispered: “I cannot believe this; how incredible is this? It’s like a little bit of goodness just for us!”

As we turned to walk back to our car, we were captivated by the visitor processing building and all of the rules posted in English and Spanish. On that day, the rules seemed a little specific and strict but the fact is visitors are entering Folsom State Prison. What I didn’t know then was that each of those rules is in place because of an incident that put someone in danger or caused a death. We continued to our car and slowly followed the road out and off prison grounds. I had no idea then how Folsom and its stories would stick with me and beckon to me, almost demanding my return.  And as it turns out this is not the end of my story with Folsom prison but just the beginning. Stay tuned because there is so much more to come!


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