On a Saturday in January 1968, famous country-musician Johnny Cash entered the Folsom State Prison. A high-security prison on the West coast of the United States, about 30 miles East of Sacramento. Cash did not enter to serve a sentence, but to perform his music live for hundreds of prisoners. On a temporary stage built up in the prison’s cafeteria, Cash gave an hour-long concert which has been recorded and later released as a live album (1968). Many of the songs written and performed by Cash are written from the point of view of a criminal, most notably the “Folsom Prison Blues” in which he sings from the perspective of a prisoner who fantasizes about the freedom of travelling by train. This concert was one of many prison concerts Cash would give as a way of fighting against the violence of the American prison system because he believes that “Nothing good ever came out of prison” (Kenneth and Hamm 2009, 279). In this text, I will explore to what extent Cash’s album truly contributes to his fights against the prison.
Angela Davis, an American academic, is also fighting against the prison system. In fact, she argues for the abolishment of the prison institution (Davis 2003). However, she emphasizes that it has become hard to imagine a life without prisons since they have become so naturalized (Davis 2003, 10). This naturalization is partially caused by the high consummation of media images of prisons through movies and tv, making the prison “a key ingredient of our common sense” (Davis 2003, 18). Following this argumentation, Cash’s recordings might not contribute to prison abolitionism, but rather reinforce the fact that prison is taken for granted. At the same time, Davis argues that “there is reluctance to face the realities hidden within them [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside” (Davis 2003, 15). Prison is merely seen as an abstract place where the undesirables are deposited (Davis 2003, page). Thus, despite the public being overthrown with images of the prison, the criminal themself has become an abstract non-human whose fate is abandoned.
Although Davis merely seems to criticize media images of the prison, I believe that exactly this media coverage of the prison and its criminals might be the first step to prison abolitionism. Cash’s recordings make the prison real and make the public think about what happens inside them. Most importantly, his album portrays these criminals as human beings. Throughout the recording, you hear the usual cheering and applauding audible on live albums, while at the same time you hear prison guards making personal announcements by calling out inmate numbers. This makes the public aware of the insides of prison while listening to the album. Through his lyrics, Cash sings from the perspective of the criminal and sympathizes with their struggles. This emphasizes how Cash does not see himself as radically different from these criminals, but emphasizes that it could have been him facing this misfortune. The final song of the album, Greystone Chapel, was even composed by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who later, with the support of Cash, became a musician himself.
His performance also gained political attention and success, including a meeting with President Nixon in 1972 and his contribution to a political panel to eliminate unequal sentencing. Nevertheless, I find it important to emphasize that Cash himself was a white and rich American man, who despite being arrested 7 times, never actually served a sentence. His skin colour and background ensured that he has not been historically constituted as a criminal and most likely contributed to the political opportunities he received. For marginalized people, it simply is not as easy as it was for Johnny Cash. Despite these notable benefits, Cash still managed to make the criminal visible and human through his performance. Therefore, I believe that Johnny Cash’s album At Folsom Prison does not re-establish the naturalization of the prison, but rather benefits the fight for prison abolitionism.
Vera de Wit
Cash, Johnny. At Folsom Prison. Album. 1968. Columbia Records.
Davis, Angela. 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.