Every year, hundreds of people walk up to the East gate of Folsom Prison to take a photo in the spot where Johnny Cash once stood. Cash’s 1968 performance at Folsom put the prison on the map, making it one of the most well-known prisons in the world. Folsom Prison has been around for nearly 140 years and in that time its seen its share of music, mayhem, and miracles.
Here are 12 little-known facts and stories about Folsom Prison.
#1: Folsom is one of CA’s Oldest Prisons
Folsom Prison is the second oldest prison in California, second only to San Quentin. It was specifically created to deal with the massive overcrowding that San Quentin was experiencing. The legislature decided that there was a need for this second prison in 1858, but it took another 10 years to choose the final site near Folsom and the American River. This location was especially convenient, as it had a large stone quarry whose materials would be used to help build large portions of the prison.
#2: Folsom Prison Was Built on a Gold Mine
Construction of Folsom Prison began in 1878 at the end of California’s Gold Rush. Folsom Prison was built on the site of the Stony Bar mining camp next to the American River; a site where dozens of mining camps had produced millions in gold only three decades before.
The site was still veined with large amounts of valuable ore and prison guards that were there during the early years spent much of their free time panning the sand for flakes of gold.
#3: Maximum Security, Minimum Comfort
During its early years, Folsom Prison’s cells were essentially 8’x4’ cold stone walls with a solid iron door. These cells were heated and lit by candles or oil lamps, and the prisoners had to conserve them to make them last through the coldest periods of the year. The iron door only had a single 6”x2” opening for viewing.
Additional air holes were not drilled into the doors until the 1940’s even though the prison had existed since 1880.
#4: Folsom Had No Walls
Today, Folsom Prison is surrounded by nearly-impenetrable hand-cut granite walls. But for almost five decades, Folsom Prison had no walls at all. The prison yard occupied approximately 52 acres of land and the prison was surrounded by towers that gave guards unobstructed views of the prisoners.
Construction began on the wall in 1909 and by 1923 it was completed. The granite walls, mined from the nearby quarry and cut by hand, still remain today.
#5: Folsom Prison Revived Johnny Cash’s Career
Fifty years ago, a prison performance changed the history of a musician and a town. In 1968, Johnny Cash’s career had started to decline. He had not had any true country music hits in several years and his habit of not showing up for shows had affected his popularity with concert venues. Cash wanted to record a live album during a performance at a prison and eventually got the chance to do so at Folsom prison and then later at San Quentin, as well.
These two albums were Johnny Cash’s best selling albums ever, and they led to a resurgence in his popularity for years to come.
Both At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin eventually achieved triple platinum status by the RIAA for selling over 3 million units. Folsom Prison became known throughout the world as Cash’s fame soared.
#6: Cash Wasn’t the Only Singer-songwriter in Folsom
One of the many songs that made Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom album a success was a song written by an inmate about the prison’s chapel.
The song called “Greystone Chapel” was written by a man called Glen Sherley who was serving time for armed robbery. Glen Sherley was an inmate at the prison who had written the song about the chapel made from the “gray stone” from the nearby quarry. The song was not just about being in prison, it was a song about redemption and finding one’s footing in life. This song called out to Cash, and he actively supported Sherley during and after his release from prison.
#7: The Prison was a Community Hub
Long before Johnny Cash made the prison famous nationally, the Folsom community was tied in with the prison. As a rather small community, Folsom life was centered on the prison’s Officers and Guard building.
During the early 20th century, the prison’s inmates were staging entertainment for fellow inmates, guards and other prison staff, as well as the local community. Even Fourth of July celebrations and sporting events were fairly common occurrences.
#8: Folsom Tells Tales of Heroic Endeavors
One of the most uplifting stories of Folsom Prison revolves around Captain P.J. Cochran. On July 23, 1924, Cochran arrived at the rock quarry where the inmates worked as part of their prison sentence. Noticing that the prisoners were working beneath the masts of a dredging boom, a tremendous risk, he did what few would have expected.
He sprinted forward and pushed the prisoners aside as the mast toppled, sacrificing himself while saving their lives.
Cochran is still remembered for his heroism, and a building in the Folsom area named after him still stands today.
#8: Folsom Brought Ice and Agricultural Success
As one of the many programs operated out of Folsom Prison during its more than 130-year history was an inmate-operated ice plant. The first ice from this plant was shipped in January of 1894. The prison ice plant was so successful that the state legislature approved an additional $162,000 for additional ice-making machinery.
Adjusted for current inflation, the $162,000 would be equivalent to approximately $4.5 million!
This seemingly extravagant spending more than paid for itself, as the ice plant is credited with contributing to the tremendous success of California’s fruit industry. This was due to the ice-cooled freight cars that transported these fruits across the nation. As of 1909, California’s fruit growers were shipping a $12 million crop of oranges across the country, and by 1930, this number had rapidly grown to $100 million.
#9: Every License Plate in CA is Made at Folsom Prison
Folsom Prison has had many different programs for inmates over the years, including the prison license plate factory.
If your vehicle has a California license plate, it was made in Folsom Prison.
The license plate factory provides jobs for 116 inmates and the work they do is not simple. Each day, the inmates produce between 45,000 and 65,000 plates as well as about 2,000 specialty and legacy plates. This work allows prisoners to gain work experience and certifications while providing the opportunity to expand their knowledge while gaining experience working with others.
#10: Folsom is Expanding Job Training Programs
While the license plate factory has been around for decades, Folsom Prison offers more contemporary rehabilitation programs for their inmates. The California Prison Industry Board approved $12 million to expand career technical programs this year.
The expansion includes more funds for the highly successful computer coding program and a number of pre-apprentice programs that partner with trade unions throughout the state.
“When you increase rehabilitative programming opportunities for offenders, you increase the chances for them to be successful and decrease the chances of them returning to prison,” said Charles L. Pattillo, CALPIA’s General Manager and Prison Industry Board’s Executive Officer.
Two of the most notable of these include the Alpha Re-Entry Program and the California New Start Prison to Employment Transition Program.
The Alpha Re-Entry Program helps inmates cultivate a variety of life skills, such as celebrating recovery from addictive behaviors, teaching parenting techniques, and helping inmates prepare to reintegrate with their family and community.
The California New Start Prison to Employment Transition Program is a program for eligible inmates that consists of a 4 week long 70-hour curriculum offering job search techniques, resume crafting, interview prep, financial planning, and other useful skills to help get them achieve success after their time is served.
#11: Folsom’s Programs Have a Positive Impact in the Community
Some of the programs inside Folsom Prison have a positive impact on the community in addition to enriching the lives of inmates.
Canine Companions for Independence has 8 puppies training at the Folsom Women’s Facility. CCI partners with 14 facilities in the US, including Folsom Prison. Each dog is paired with an inmate who is responsible for its care and basic training. CCI puppies go on to receive additional training so they can provide independence to a person with a disability.
Folsom’s refurbished bike program deliverers bikes to children and adults in the community. Bicycles have been delivered to the Union Gospel Mission in Sacramento, to homeless individuals, veterans, and elementary school children courtesy of an inmate who spends up to 60 hours a week fixing hundreds of bikes a year.
In May of 2017, female inmates in Folsom became the first women in California to perform a Shakespeare play in prison as part of the Shakespeare in Prison program supported by the Marin Shakespeare Co.
Hooks and Needles, a charitable crochet and knitting initiative started inside the prison in 2011, has donated over 1,800 items to the community. Inmates learn new skills creating blankets and toys and donate them to hospitals, shelters and children’s care facilities.
#12: The FBI is Still Looking for an Escaped Folsom Inmate
In its long history, many inmates have attempted to escape from Folsom Prison and a few have succeeded. The FBI is still looking for one, a convicted murderer named Glen Stewart Godwin who made it on the agency’s Ten Most Wanted list after his 1987 escape.
Godwin fled from Folsom Prison through a hole he cut in the fence wire after tools were smuggled in for him. He fled through a storm drain which took him to the American River, where a raft waited to float him away to freedom.
Godwin himself was later arrested in Mexico. But he made another escape from a Guadalajara prison and remains at large to this day.