The Trail

Your Biggest Folsom Prison Questions, Answered

4/19/2023 | By Johnny Cash Trail| Folsom Prison

Folsom State Prison is arguably the most famous prison in America, and most of its notoriety is due to one man, Johnny Cash.

Aside from its Man in Black connection, Folsom Prison has a fascinating history—one that begs the following questions to be answered.

Where is Folsom Prison?

Folsom State Prison is located in Folsom, CA, in Sacramento County.

It opened on July 26, 1880, following the California Gold Rush. It was built on the banks of the American River, about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, the state capital.

Fun Fact: Folsom Prison has a mailing address in Represa, CA, a suburban neighborhood located within Folsom, CA.

Is Folsom Prison still open?

Yes, Folsom Prison is still operational.

When Folsom Prison opened its doors in 1880, it received 44 inmates from San Quentin Prison to get started. Only 17 years later, the prison housed over 900 inmates. As of February 2024, Folsom Prison has 2,710 total inmates, 109% of its designed capacity.

Folsom Prison was the second prison to be built in California and was considered an overflow location for San Quentin (California’s first prison).

Though Folsom Prison was the first prison in the world to have electric power (in 1893), when it opened in 1880, prisoners had no heat, plumbing, or light. Each cell was only 8’ x 4’ and had a solid iron door with a 6” x 2” viewing port. Air holes were drilled into each door only in the 1940s. The original doors remain today.

If you ride your bike past Folsom Prison on the Johnny Cash Trail, you’ll see the formidable granite rock walls surrounding it. Interestingly, for the first 29 years, there were no walls at Folsom State Prison, and guards were guarded only from guard towers. The construction of walls didn’t begin until 1909, and it wasn’t completed until 1923.

Is Folsom Prison dangerous?

Folsom Prison was initially designed to hold habitual criminals, inmates serving long sentences, and “incorrigibles.” Early on, Folsom quickly gained the reputation of being the end of the line.

Prior to the completion of the granite wall in the 1920s, when guard towers were the only thing standing between prisoners and freedom, the prison witnessed numerous escape attempts and, over the years, a few riots as well.

Like many other prisons, Folsom has a history marred by riots, escape attempts, and gang violence. Johnny Cash heard many of these stories from inmates as he toured prisons in the 1960s. It was these stories that inspired the Man in Black to take up the fight for prison reform.

At a 1972 US Senate hearing, Cash relayed stories of some of the worst abuses he had heard of on his prison visits. Cash outlined to Capitol Hill senators what he thought was wrong with the American penal system, as well as his proposals for improving prison life for inmates.

Cash’s proposals included the separation of first-timers and hardened criminals, reclassification of offenses to keep minor offenders out of prison, a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and counseling to prepare convicts for the outside world and reduce the possibility of them reoffending.

Who has escaped?

Folsom Prison has had 7 different events of escape attempts.

In 1920, three prisoners hijacked a train used during the construction of the granite prison walls and smashed it through the prison gate to escape.

In 1932, a prisoner named Dwight Abbott made a life-like dummy to fool the guards long enough to make his escape.

Also in 1932, inmate Carl Reese scrounged together materials to make a diving suit but unfortunately drowned in the powerhouse mill pond after failing to secure a long enough breathing tube. Guards had to drain the pool to recover his body.

Later, in 1937, 40 inmates were waiting to speak with the warden about parole hearings when 7 of the inmates attacked him and another officer with shanks and a prison-made semiautomatic pistol. Neither the warden nor the officer survived. Two of the inmates attempted to escape during the scuffle but were fatally shot. The other five were all sentenced to death in late 1938.

Jumping 50 years into 1987, their most notable escapee, Glen Stewart Godwin, is still on the run and has a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list. During the year, he smuggled a hacksaw and other tools to cut a hole in the fence and escape through a storm drain leading to the American River. After crawling in pitch black for 750 ft., either his wife or accomplice Lorenz Karlic left him a raft and painted arrows on rocks to guide his way out. Both Karlic and Godwin’s wife were arrested, as well as Godwin, in 1991 in Mexico. He then escaped his prison in Guadalajara and remains at large.

In 2010, two minimum-security inmates escaped but were apprehended a month later in Inglewood, CA.

Lastly, in 2017, Tod Willis walked away from his minimum-security housing facility to escape and hide in Rancho Cordova. Unfortunately for him, an off-duty officer spotted him and reported him to authorities, and he was quickly apprehended.

Did They Have Any Notable Inmates?

Being one of the highest-security prisons on the West Coast, Folsom Prison was no stranger to incarcerating big names behind its walls.

Rick James, the R&B icon, was sentenced to a 5-year sentence in prison after kidnapping and assaulting two women while under the influence. He was released a little over 2 years later and after paying millions of dollars in damages.

Suge Knight, founder of Death Records and producer of Snoop Dogg, Tupac, and Dr. Dre, spent for assault charges.

Danny Trejo was heavily involved in drug and crime culture since the age of 7, prior to his acting career, and spent time in at least 6 different California prisons, including Folsom, from 1959-69.

Charles Manson, one of the most infamous serial killers in the world, spent time in Folsom Prison from 1972 to 1976 after he convinced followers of his to kill actress Sharon Tate and 9 others during a crime spree in 1969.

What is Folsom Prison known for?

Johnny Cash made Folsom Prison one of the most well-known prisons in the United States thanks to his hit song, Folsom Prison Blues, and the live concerts he held there on January 13, 1968.

Cash enlisted in the Air Force in 1950 and became a Morse Code intercept officer. Although he excelled at his job, music was always his first love. He wrote Folsom Prison Blues in 1953 while still stationed in Germany.

During the 1968 live concerts that would become the album At Folsom Prison, the inmates in the audience only cheered when he took the stage and introduced himself, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Otherwise, they remained silent, fearing retribution from the guards. When listening to the album, the cheering you hear after the lyric, “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” was added in post-production.

The Man in Black’s live album At Folsom Prison revived Johnny Cash’s career. Cash believed the prison system was broken and used his music and influence to raise awareness.

Of course, there are many more questions and answers about Folsom Prison, its rich history, its operation today, and its connection to Johnny Cash. Its fame continues to fascinate. Learn more about California’s most notable penitentiary with 12 Things You Didn’t Know About Folsom Prison.