Johnny Cash had balls

Johnny Cash – standing up for prison reform

Johnny Cash was a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights.

Two of his most famous albums were recorded live at Folsom Prison and San Quentin – 2 of the most notorious prisons of the time.

But it’s much less well-known that these were only two of many prison concerts Johnny Cash performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, over the course of 30 years.

“In the 1960s in America, there was a growing realisation that prisons were ineffective,” says Streissguth. “They were merely training inmates to be better criminals. So the recidivism rate, people coming back to incarceration, was very high.”

Cash, an ardent believer in the power of rehabilitation over punishment, became the go-to voice for the media on this new hot topic.

“I think Cash had a feeling that somehow he had been endowed with this fame in order to do something with it, and one of the ways he could do something with it was talking about prison reform,” says Streissguth, who also believes Cash’s deeply-held religious beliefs were a factor in his championing of the cause. “He connected with the idea that a man could be redeemed.”

If American prisons were failing, nowhere was this more true than in Cash’s home state of Arkansas.

By 1970, the entire state penal system had been declared “unconstitutional” by a federal judge, after a series of scandals throughout the 60s involving the physical and sexual abuse of inmates, torture, inadequate living conditions and the outdated and corrupt “trustee system”.

Read more about Johnny Cash – his life, his music, and the way he touched the lives of men who were considered to be on the scrapheap.

His music carries his message:

San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me

You’ve hosted me since nineteen sixty three

I’ve seen ’em come and go and I’ve seen them die

And long ago I stopped askin’ why


San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.

You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through an’ through.

And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man;

Mister Congressman you can’t understand.


San Quentin, what good do you think you do?

Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?

You bent my heart and mind and you warped my soul,

Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold.


San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell.

May your walls fall and may I live to tell.

May all the world forget you ever stood.

And may all the world regret you did no good.


San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.

Mara Dall (46 Posts)

Mara Dall is a writer and traveller, exploring wild, magical places of the earth, of the mind, and of the soul. Read more about her here.