Guest Author - Vance R. Rowe
Folsom prison is the second oldest prison in the state of California behind San Quentin but was the first prison in the United States to have electricity. Folsom opened in 1880 and was one of the first maximum security prisons in the United States as well. Folsom has executed 93 prisoners in a 42 year period. Today, Folsom prison is a minimum security prison.
Folsom was built in 1878 on the site of the Stony Bar mining camp by the American River. When Folsom first opened in 1880, the cells were 4' by 8' and made of stone. Boiler plate doors are used on the cells and had six inch eye holes on them. In 1948, air holes were drilled into the doors and these doors are still used today in the original building.
In 1891, California had the death penalty and death row inmates were executed at Folsom and San Quentin. The 93 prisoners executed at Folsom were all hung between December 1895 and December 1937. Executions after these dates were carried out in San Quentin in the gas chamber.
Folsom prison also had a lot of educational and vocational opportunities for the inmates. The granite quarry there provided the foundation for the state capitol building in Sacramento. The gravel there also went toward building the new roads in early California. The California state license plates are also made at Folsom prison. Folsom prison industries include a metal fabrication shop, a printing shop, and a sign shop. The Vocational Inmate Program had such as auto body repair, auto mechanics, building maintenance, office services, janitorial and landscaping just to name a few but about half of these programs were terminated in 2010 due to budget cuts.
Folsom prison is probably most famous today for a two day concert that Johnny Cash performed in there and was recorded into a double album called At Folsom Prison, and part of this concert is immortalized in the bio pic movie Walk The Line, about the life of Johnny Cash starring Joaquin Phoenix, who sang all of the songs in the movie.
Contrary to popular belief, Johnny Cash never spent time in Folsom as an inmate but some famous inmates of the prison include: musicians Rick James, Suge Knight, Glen Sherley and actor Danny Trejo. Other notable inmates include Erik Menendez, Sonny Barger, the former leader of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club. Also Charles Manson, Hippie icon, Timothy Leary, and Eldridge Cleaver, former leader of the Black Panther party.
Folsom also has a bloody and violent history in which many escapes were attempted, some successful and some not so much. There have also been numerous riots in which both prisoners and staff members have been killed.