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, and was built on the banks of the American River.  It is about 20 miles northeast of the state capital of Sacramento.

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

Is Folsom Prison still open?

Yes, Folsom Prison is still operational.

As of December 2022, Folsom had just shy of 2500 total inmates. On opening day in 1880, it received 44 inmates transferred from San Quentin Prison.

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

It opened with no heat, no plumbing, and no 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 guarded from guard towers only. Construction of walls didn't begin until 1909 and wasn't completed until 1923.

Is Folsom Prison dangerous?

Folsom Prison was originally 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 1920's, 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 a number of escape attempts.

In 1920, three prisoners hijacked a train used during the construction of the granite prison walls.

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.

A Folsom Prison inmate was even on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Glen Stewart Godwin remains at large to this day.

What is Folsom Prison known for?

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

Johnny Cash became a Morse intercept officer after enlisting in the Air Force in 1950. Even though he excelled at his job, music would always be 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 his career. Johnny 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.