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Folsom-“Stop no visitors beyond this point” warn the sign overlooking the hand-hewn gray granite walls. Vaulted gate and peaked Gothic guard tower of Folsom State Prison. It’s an intimidating view of the lockup where nearly 100 men were hanged and guards and inmates died in spectacular escape attempts that included a runaway railroad engine and homemade diving suit. Yet the warning sign is posted at a “picture spot” where about 9,000 tourist each year snap photos of the prison made famous by country singer Johnny Cash and his “Folsom Prison Blues” Visitors can explore a nearby scale model of the wall, tower and No. 8 gate from California’s second oldest prison. They can view a replica cell featuring mildly risqué pinups on the wall and watch a videotaped tour of the prison, which sits on now-valuable acreage in an increasingly affluent community next to popular Folsom Lake. The Folsom Prison Museum offers a look at torturous prison conditions in decades after the California Gold Rush populated the Sierra Nevada foothills that start here, 20 miles east of Sacramento. It’s a novelty, anytime you have a museum about a prison. It opens the door to secrets they had not experienced, said John Fratis, treasure and operations manager of the nonprofit association of retired guards that runs the museum. “We thought we’d educate the public, because people don’t know what it’s all about.” Prison construction began in 1878 on the site of the ram shackled Stony Bar mining camp along the American River. Early guards spent their spare time sifting sand for gold flakes; the land under the prison is said to be veined with gold. These were the days when gold stone 4-by-8-foot cells were lighted and heated with candles or oil lamps, and water was hauled by wagon. Inmates spent much of their time in the dark behind solid iron cell doors, peering out through 6-inch eye slots. Air holes were drilled in the doors only in the 1940’s. The cell doors are still in use.

Tales of those days of hardship are told at the museum by “Sam” a life like-size Charles Bronson look-alike talking doll dressed in black-and-white striped inmate clothing. Other exhibits offer mute but chilling testimony to life at the prison into the early 29th century. Just inside the door are two thick hemp ropes that actually hanged inmates. Each rope was pre-stretched to minimize the bounce; each rope was used just once, then tagged and stored with the dead man’s inmate number. The hangman’s knot was custom-tied for each condemned inmate; based on his neck size, with the intention that large knot would knock him unconscious on impact.

From the first execution on Dec 13, 1895 to last on Dec 3, 1937, 93 men hanged at Folsom California switched to a gas chamber at San Quentin. A canvas-and-leather straitjacket was deemed so cruel its use of “The Iron Claw” a sinister-looking restraint device. Troublesome inmates were strung up by their thumbs from iron rings set in the walls for that purpose, or hobbled by ankle weights or a ball-and-chain. A World War 1.30-caliber water cooled machine gun was used until the 1950s to protect the prison armory. Guards fired a belt of ammunition the first day of each month “to keep it in operational and for the psychological effect” according to the museum. It replaced a hand-cranked Gatling gun that was set at the prison boundaries to guard against mass escapes before the high stonewalls were completed in the 1920s. Conditions had improved by the time Johnny Cash recorded His “Folsom Prison Blues” album at the prison in January 1968. Inmate’s shouts, curses and the sound of slamming cell doors accompany an album centered on seven songs about prison life and death. Johnny Cash is traveling overseas and could not be reached to reminisce. In the liner notes to the album, Johnny Cash writes that, “I have been behind bars a few time. Sometimes of my own volition, sometimes involuntarily. Each time, I felt the same feeling of kinship with my fellow prisoners” 

 

Today, nearly 4,000 inmates can relate to Cash’s lament, “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, And Time Keeps Draggin On” Folsom, which shifted to housing medium-security  inmates eight years ago, started as one of the nation’s first maximum-security prisons, built to house those serving long term, the condemned, and the incorrigibles. Those inmates were desperate to escape. In 1920, three convicts hijacked a prison train used to move materials smashing it through a prison gate. Only two where recaptured. Another inmate tried to escape in 1932 using a diving suit fashioned from a football bladder, goggles lens and other scrounged materials, and “He only made one mistake, He didn’t make his breathing tube long enough” says Floyd Davis, a prison guard for 13 years who now volunteers at the museum. Guards had to drain the power house mill pond to recover the inmates body. Another inmate carved a wooden semiautomatic pistol for a 1937 escape attempt in which Warden Clarence A. Larkin and two others died. Next to the weapon in a prison display case is material used to make bombs. A wall of the museum is lined with dozens of crude inmate-made knives, known as “shanks or shivs,” including are two spears with shafts made of tightly rolled newspapers hardened with a soap-water solution. “I quests when you’ve got nothing to do all day you can come up all kinds of neat things” said John Spotswood of Folsom, who brought his visiting parents to see the displays. Nearby is a crude but working toaster made of wires installed inside a card board box. 

 

John Moore, who retired 22 years ago as a prison lieutenant and now and now volunteers at the museum, says inmates used to tear asbestos insulation off steam pipes and use the heat to cook strip of meat. The ends of each steak remained raw, however, because the inmates couldn’t hold cook them without getting burned; those portions were fed to the prison’s cats. The prison museum is the only one operating in California, and the one of few in the nation, though San Quentin plans to reopen its museum shortly. “It’s a once in a life time opportunity to see the tools of the trade, so to speak,” says Sharyn Ahlstrom of Folsom “I bring all my out-of-town visitors here. They all want to see Folsom Prison; Every time I go around the country, people ask where I’m from> I say Folsom; they say, Oh, you live by the prison? Johnny Cash made famous. Her brother, Bob Wade of little Rock Art, said he struck by the model prison cell’s stark confines. “You saw that think, If that’s a consequence of doing wrong, you’d better do right,” Wade says. The Retired guards opened the museum in the late 1980s and pay rent to the prison. To make their money, mush of which goes to charity, from donations and selling souvenirs such as T-Shirts and sweat-shirts labeled “Folsom Bed And Breakfast” “Hard Rock Hotel-Folsom Prison” “ Bad Boyz” on a replica California license plates are manufactured inside. 

It’s up to volunteers such as Moore, who spent nearly 33 years as a guard, to break, the news to visitors that while Folsom best-known publicist served time in jail , he saw the inside of prison only when performing for inmates. “Everybody always wants to come see where Johnny Cash did time Moore said “when I tell them Johnny Cash never did any time in any state prison or federal prison, they get mad. 

Johnny Cash sang about in Folsom Prison Blues and recorded a live album there in 1968. But what is this where you might get sent if you say shot a man in Reno just watch him die? 

Note: Place: Folsom State Prison, California, 23 miles outside Sacramento.  
          Date Opened 1880 It's Calif. second-oldest prison
          Prisoners Currently Held 3,880 Inmates it's first inmates were transferred from San Quentin  - where Johnny, coincidentally recorded another live album in 1969 
          The Shackles Of Myth: Contrary to popular belief, The Man In Black was never actually sent to prison, although he did spend a few nights in local jails during the wild days of his youth.

Hello I'm Johnny Cash 

I hear the train a comin' it's rollin' round the bend

And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when

I'm stuck in Folsom Prison and time keeps draggin' on

But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone

When I was just a baby my mama told me son

Always be a good boy don't ever play with guns

But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

When I hear that whistle blowin' I hang my head and I cry

[ guitar ]

I bet there's rich folks eatin' in some fancy dining car

They're probably drinkin' coffee and smokin' big cigars

Well I know I had it comin' I know I can't be free

But those people keep a movin' and that's what tortures me

[ guitar ]

Well if they freed me from this prison if that railroad train was mine

I bet I'd move it on a little farther down the line

Far from Folsom Prison that's where I want to stay

And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away

Revised: September 03, 2007

On September 12, Willie Nelson will release his first .

 

 

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