The Trail

Did Johnny Cash Go To Prison?

12/20/2023 | By Johnny Cash Trail| Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash is country music's most famous outlaw, a man who built a career around rebellious antics on and off the stage. Cash got into a fair amount of public trouble with the law, so it's no surprise that people continue to wonder just how much of a "bad boy" the Man in Black actually was. 

Did Johnny Cash get arrested and spend time in prison, or was his reputation simply the result of a carefully constructed public image?

Did Johnny Cash Go To Prison?

Cash's name is synonymous with Folsom Prison, where he recorded a live album and performed his famous single Folsom Prison Blues in front of a live audience of prison inmates and guards. 

But did Cash actually spend time inside prison?

Was Johnny Cash Ever Arrested?

Johnny Cash had a history of clashing with law enforcement. He was arrested seven times for various charges, most of which involved intoxication, drugs, or actions taken while under the influence. 

His arrest record includes

  • Trespassing onto private property to pick flowers (Cash was under the influence)
  • Smuggling prescription drugs in his guitar case from Mexico
  • Public drunkenness
  • Reckless driving
  • Drug possession

Johnny's most notable arrest may have been the time he got caught smuggling amphetamines in his guitar case across the Mexican border to El Paso, Texas. U.S. customs agents found 1,000 pills on the Man in Black, and he spent a night in jail. "I realize my mistake. It was bad, very bad, misconduct on my part," Cash admitted to a judge, who sentenced the Man in Black to a $1,000 fine and a 30-day suspended sentence. Fellow country musicians Gene Autry and Tex Ritter had written letters to the judge to vouch for Cash's character, and the judge suspended the sentence because the drugs were prescription.

Yet, it was one of Cash's more "innocent" run-ins with the law that some Cash fans find most endearing. The first time Cash spent a night in jail was following a performance at Mississippi State University. After the show, Cash was caught drunkenly pulling flowers from a local resident's garden.

"You wouldn't believe it, one night I got in jail in Starkville, Mississippi for picking flowers," Cash reportedly said. 

"I was walking down the street ... and uh, you know, going to get me some cigarettes or something. 'Bout two in the morning, after a show. I think it was. Anyway, I reached down and picked a dandelion here and a daisy there as I went along, and this car pulls up. He said, 'Get the hell in here boy, what are you doing?' I said, 'I'm just picking flowers.' Well, thirty six dollars for picking flowers and a night in jail. You can't hardly win can ya? No telling what they'd do if you pull an apple or something ... I'd like to get back at the fella down in Starkville Mississippi...that still has my thirty six dollars."

While Cash spent the night in Starkville City Jail, he shared a cell with a 15-year-old named Smokey Evans. Cash reportedly kicked the cell wall hard enough to break a toe and then removed his shoes and gave them to his cellmate, saying, "Here's a souvenir. I'm Johnny Cash."

Despite several run-ins with the law, Johnny Cash never spent more than a single night in local jails.

He was never issued a prison sentence.

Johnny Cash: a Country Rebel Finds a Cause

Cash's numerous arrests, addictions, and marital infidelities were well-known and contributed to his reputation as a rebel and country music outlaw. 

After being discovered by Sam Phillips' Sun Records in 1955, Cash rocketed into fame and fortune.

Unfortunately, Cash's fame came with a price. His hard-partying lifestyle and addiction to drugs and alcohol cost Cash his first marriage and negatively affected his career. In 1965, Cash missed an entire 10-day tour, recalled his former manager, Saul Holiff. Shows were routinely canceled in the wake of his arrests.

Johnny Cash continued to fight his battles with addiction for years with the support of his second wife, June Carter Cash.

But Cash's story is ultimately one that ends in redemption, not rebelliousness.

Cash overcame his addictions and eased his hard-partying ways. 

With June by his side, Johnny Cash returned to his faith and embarked on a remarkable redemption story. In 1968, Cash recorded Live at Folsom Prison. The album was a success and is credited for reviving Cash's career. That same year, the Johnny Cash Show debuted on TV, and he went on to have continued success in TV, film, and music until his death in 2003.

Johnny Cash's Fight for Prison Reform

Cash may have never spent time in prison for his crimes, but the time he spent performing and talking to inmates inspired him to become a champion for prison reform. 

He became an outspoken activist for prison reform, spoke to Congress and six different sitting presidents about the issue, donated his own dollars to build a prison chapel, and helped an inmate get early release and a signed record deal. 

Johnny Cash's music and public persona spoke of rebellion, hopelessness, and darkness, but also about redemption, hope, and love. And these two sides to Cash—the rebellious Man in Black, arrested, addicted, and unpredictable, and the redeemed Man of God who fought his way out of the dark—connected him to the inmates he performed for. 

Cash used his music to reveal the humanity of the men behind bars and his position of influence to fight for better conditions for them.

Johnny Cash may never have served hard time in prison for his crimes, but he spent plenty of time in prison trying to make life a little better for the men living out their own stories of redemption.

This post was originally published in May 2023 and updated on Dec. 18, 2023.