Folsom Prison Museum
The career of country singer Johnny Cash was flagging in the late 1960s when he had a brilliant idea: perform and record a live concert in front of a room full of convicts. The resulting #1 album, "At Folsom Prison," resurrected Cash's career and blasted Folsom into the American pop culture mainstream like a water cannon aimed at rioting inmates.
Only three prisons in California are really name-drop famous: Alcatraz (now a tourist attraction), San Quentin, and -- thanks to Johnny Cash -- Folsom State Prison.
There's lots of info about Johnny Cash in exhibits at the Folsom Prison Museum. It's in historic House No. 8 on prison property, but outside the imposing stone walls and iron gates of the facility, and it's staffed by retired guards, who tell Folsom's story. Or, more accurately, they tell you to read the signs and news stories in the museum rooms.
"It's right there on the wall," answers a museum volunteer (who declined to divulge her name), to one of our questions. For the next, it's "Didn't you read it over there in the display?" It feels like we stepped out of the chow line asking the guard for extra mashed potatoes…
The museum's modest admission fee goes for cancer research, "not into some corrections officer bank account," according to our host, a member of the Retired Correctional Peace Officers Association. Then she pointed out the buckets of free rocks for visitors to take home (from the hard labor rock pile, we assume).
Johnny Cash never served time at Folsom Prison (more of a misdemeanor guy, Cash spent a night in jail on several occasions). The January 1968 Folsom concert was his first recorded "live" prison album, but Cash performed at a Texas prison as early as 1956, and Folsom in 1966, when he posed for a couple of gag mug shots. Visitors can flip through news clips and memorabila, and the tiny gift shop sells prints of exclusive rare photos of Johnny Cash striking bad boy poses near the walls.
The museum chiefly displays the kind of artifacts prison authorities tend to hold onto… as well as items from the personal collections of career correctional officers. There's a wall of homemade shivs and lethal implements confiscated from inmates, and a couple of fake pistols carved from blocks of wood. One was used in a 1937 prison riot where warden Clarence A. Larkin was killed.
Glass cases display what tools correctional officers had at their disposal to hold back the lawless rabble: handcuffs, chains, and belly belts. A Gatling Gun from the late 19th century and a 20th century Thompson submachine gun show how riots might be quickly quelled.
The "Mock Cell" contains Sam the Perpetual Prisoner -- a dummy in striped attire and big mustache circa 1890s, with an animated head that turns from side-to-side every ten seconds or so. There a Bible propped on one leg, and a big rubber cockroach on the other. Sam's audio narration talks about hardships of early prison life.
Then there's the positive side of prisons, those felons who find their creative muse only when they're behind bars. That's what seemed to happen to William J. B. Burkey. Convicted of burglary and sent to Folsom in 1928 ("He was probably a real jerk in court, because the judge threw the book at him," said the museum host.), he escaped in 1929 and was recaptured, and then spent the next 30 years in prison. But instead of just staring at the wall, Burkey built a magnificent nine-foot-tall Ferris wheel out of 250,000 toothpicks. The wheel is a star exhibit in the museum. The less creative inmates are represented with a display of the types of license plates they manufactured.
Ninety-nine men were hanged at Folsom Prison before executions were moved to San Quentin. The prison's Death Book is a museum possession, but it's currently in the warden's office for safekeeping. The actual gallows, a metal contraption, is lying on the front lawn of the museum, under a blue tarp. They'd like to put it on display, but can't because "kids would be hanging themselves from it. They dangle until they're close to passing out and then a friend cuts 'em loose," said the ex-guard host, who has finally taken pity on our reading disability and cheerfully answers any questions we still have the nerve to ask.
There are other interesting artifacts on the lawn, such as an old guard tower, and a combo-sink/toilet from a cell. But on the edge of the yard, a sign ominously warns visitors to go no further.
A few years ago, two young male museum visitors were warned by personnel that they weren't allowed past the signs. They dashed down the hill anyway, toward the prison's iron gate. The two were quickly intercepted by a guard, marched back to the museum, and made to sit on a bench outside for hours to teach them a lesson. No rock breaking, though.