By Janet Lewis, assisted by Carol Dabrowiak, and photos by Cindy Gibbs
If you say Folsom to local folks, we think Folsom Lake and the end of the American River Parkway. But if you say Folsom to someone from anywhere else in the country, they think Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash. Probably no other prison is as widely known, and we barely think about it. So when Carol, Cindy and I realized that Folsom Prison has a museum, we had to visit it.
A 20 minute drive from downtown Sacramento hotels, Folsom State Prison (FSP) is located a ways out of old town Folsom, in a hilly area studded with oak trees. Rounding the bend of Prison Road, it’s an eerie feeling catch that first glimpse of the Prison’s distinctive granite walls, which enclose over 40 acres. One side is bounded by the American River. We later learned the river boundary is now hemmed in by a double wire fence. But in FSP’s early days, it was enforced by guards in towers with guns and on the ground with wooden clubs.
The Folsom Prison Museum is located in a small stone and wood two story building near the imposing FSP East Gate and Tower #1. The Museum is run by RCPO [Retired Correctional Peace Officers].
The odd-looking “doodle bug” a small but powerful tractor made and used for heavy hauling in the FSP Lower Yard.
An iron railroad gate made in the prison blacksmith shop circa 1893.
Inside the Museum, we found many displays of photos and artifacts, including numerous prison-made knives and other contraband confiscated from inmates over the years. The display cabinets are totally packed with objects, so you need to take your time to look closely. Some things are not exactly what they appear to be. One gun looks real at a glance, but up close, you can see it was carved from wood and stained black.
Most ingenious item on display: a toaster made from a cardboard box, gum wrappers, thin wires, and electrical cord. The sign said, “It works!” But unfortunately there was no demonstration.
Most intriguing item: a small metal “dice maker.” This device could fit in the palm of your hand. It pressed the requisite dots into bread or sugar. The inmates gambled on a blanket, and if guards came by they ate the dice.
- Two other items of special note are the giant slide rule used to teach mathematical calculations. These were used before the invention of electronic calculators and computer spreadsheets. The other item was an intricate toothpick Ferris wheel.
Folsom Prison is famous for its Hollywood and Nashville connections. Johnny Cash made renowned appearances there for concerts, and his iconic songs are well known. We also saw posters displayed for a half-dozen relatively obscure movies, including Convicts 4, Inside Folsom Prison, and Walk The Line. We wondered if any of these would be on Netflix.
We were intrigued to find a connection to one of our previous HTT excursions. Did you know that the 1860 State Capitol foundation in downtown Sacramento is made from Folsom Prison Granite out of the FSP Rock Quarry in the Lower Yard?
Way at the back of the Museum, we found the Demo Cell occupied by “Sam the Prisoner” who describes living conditions in the original prison - sounds pretty grim! Sam told us of early escapes from FSP. One fellow was audacious enough to go into a bar in Old Sacramento and challenge the patrons to a fist fight. No wonder he was back to FSP in a jiffy!
We wrapped up our Museum visit by asking the docent to show an informative 8 minute video on programs and activities inside the walls. It’s not a myth that California’s license plates are made there.
But have no doubt that this is a maximum security prison with granite walls and razor wire fences. It currently houses about 2,900 inmates.
After we left the museum, we walked towards the main gate to take some photos. A voice from within the tower called out to us to "step away from the gate - step back please!" Someone is always watching you when you are on the grounds.
Still and all, the Folsom Prison Museum is definitely worth visiting. Take a cue from Johnny Cash -- don’t wait for your out-of-town guests to suggest a visit to the Folsom Prison Museum!