I learned Johnny Cash songs because of my own frequent imprisonment in the backseat of the family station wagon. Dad played all the Man in Black’s hits on the Chevy’s 8-track. “A Boy Named Sue” probably made the most lasting impression on me, but I also learned, among other lessons, that there is no despair quite so dark as being stuck in Folsom Prison.
Otherwise, I never gave much thought to the place until the day my parents announced we were moving from the Bay Area to Folsom.
“The place with the prison?” I half-asked, half-accused. It was a refrain I’d come to learn that is, literally, repeated around the world. You can be having coffee in Paris’ Latin Quarter, and if you tell someone you’re from Folsom, they’re sure to say, “Oh, the place with the prison, right?”
We only lived in Folsom for about a year, but I came back as an adult in 1999, and it’s been my home ever since. Most people don’t know it, but we actually have three prisons here. The Folsom State Prison Johnny Cash made famous, California State Prison Sacramento, and Folsom Women’s Facility are all within a mile of each other.
When strangers ask me to confirm that I live in “the place with the prison,” I usually just say yes. But day to day, the prisons are invisible to me. Driving along the city’s streets, you could come and go without ever knowing the prisons are here. They’re set back, off the beaten path—albeit on what is arguably some of the most beautiful property in the region, among rolling hills, oak trees, grazing cattle, and wildlife. One single sign at the entrance to the aptly named “Prison Road” in the city’s northeast corner is the only clue that you’re in fact in a “prison town.”
But when I reached out to my neighbors to ask about the prison’s impact on our city, what I learned surprised me. It turns out that, in ways the naked and uninformed eye can’t easily see, the prison is deeply woven into the fabric of Folsom’s economy, culture, and community.
“It’s so ironic that the very prison that makes Folsom visible around the world is itself so invisible in the community,” Joe Gagliardi, CEO of the Greater Folsom Partnership, which includes Folsom’s Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Bureau, and Economic Development Corporation, told me. He sees that anonymity as a result of geography. Another city official told me that the local people who get closest to the prison are kayakers and paddle boarders on Lake Natoma who dare each other to go past the “No Trespassing: Prison Property” sign, and sometimes get warnings from the prison guards.
Folsom residents, Gagliardi said, see and talk about other entities and places when they talk about what defines their home town. Historic Sutter Street is the town’s center, the 1.5 million-square-foot Intel campus employs 6,000 people, California Independent System Operator (ISO) headquarters (which manages California’s power grid) is here, and the education technology company PowerSchool is also based here, along with the new (ish) Palladio Mall, and the growing “new” Folsom south of Highway 50. But the prisons remain very important as one of the largest employers in the area. They are also essential to our tax base and economy.
The ties are more than economic. Sarah Aquino, Folsom’s former mayor, chairs what is called the citizens’ advisory committee for Folsom State Prison and California State Prison, Sacramento. “The prisons are great community partners,” she said. Folsom non-profits benefit from food sales held at the prisons, she noted. During the pandemic, staff at both prisons held a food drive to replenish the Twin Lakes Food Bank, and hundreds of cloth masks sewn by Folsom State Prison inmates were donated to the school district.
“The prisons are certainly part of what some people think of when you say ‘Folsom,’” said city manager Elaine Anderson from city hall, one of the buildings closest to the prison “But I don’t think of that in a negative light. The prisons serve a critical purpose,” she said, praising their partnership with the city.
Justin Raithel, who chairs Folsom’s city planning commission, recalled serving on the steering committee for Folsom’s annual Community Service Day, and being surprised at the extent to which the prison population can play a role in the town. One example: in partnership with the Lions Club, community members donated old eyeglasses, inmates repaired and refurbished them, and the glasses ultimately got donated back to people in the community. A similar program, administered by the police department, has prisoners fixing donated bikes that go back to those in need of transportation. Dozens of these refurbished bicycles often get distributed to kids at Christmas.
Terry Carroll, publisher of Folsom’s Style Magazine, shared with me another way prisoners connect with the outside—one that stretches far beyond Folsom and is little known in town: a Braille program.
Since 1989, Carroll said, members of the prison population have translated books into Braille.
According to an account of the Folsom program published by the San Quentin News, inmate Layale Shellman earned six different Braille certifications and became arguably one of the most certified and skilled Braille transcriptionists in the world. “I once, during a drug-induced state, not making excuses, but I stole from a blind woman,” Shellman is quoted as saying. “In 1980, I became a Christian, and this is one of the ways you have to make amends.”
“Turns out he, and several other guys at the prison had a real knack for it,” said Carroll of Shellman and the work of translation. Carroll added that the Library of Congress tapped inmates to do Braille translations for all its music. “There were only 60 people in the world who could do it, and three of those are at Folsom Prison,” he said. “That has always impressed the heck out of me.”
If there’s one thing I took away from these discussions, it’s that those who understand the prisons’ role in the community don’t wish to get “far from Folsom Prison,” as Cash sang. They appreciate the positives of the proximity, the closeness, and the value of the connection between the town and the prison.
And that’s changed my own thinking about our “prison town.” I experienced that closeness personally recently when a prison “bake sale” financed the full cost of my son’s Boy Scout Eagle project. There is a virtuous circle to such funds, which can can finance free pancake breakfasts for local school kids, tutoring programs, mentoring, missionary work, and other activities that, God willing, will help keep young people from going to prison in the first place.
We all can wish that we didn’t need prisons, but we do. And since we have them, we shouldn’t see them as a blot on a city—but as neighbors and institutions that are part of communities. Now, when I walk down Sutter Street, I still can’t see the prison itself, but I can’t help but notice its impact all around me.