Folsom Prison had no walls for decades, was first with electricity

By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Historical photos compiled by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer

Johnny Cash performed two concerts at Folsom Prison in 1968.

Johnny Cash performed two concerts at Folsom Prison in 1968. He also performed a concert at the prison in 1966, but it was not recorded.

(Note: This is the third in an ongoing series exploring the history of the CDCR.)

Say the words “Folsom Prison” outside of California, or even beyond the country’s borders, and people will probably recognize the name.

The prison has become virtually synonymous with Johnny Cash who performed two concerts there on Jan. 13, 1968. Those concerts were turned into Cash’s popular album, “At Folsom Prison.” Did you know his hit song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” was 13 years earlier and put the facility on the map? And 1968 wasn’t his first Folsom Prison concert. Cash performed at the prison in 1966 as well. He also visited the prison in 1977.

Cash performed in many prisons. “From the very first prison I played in 1957 … I found that a concert is a tension reliever,” he is quoted as saying (in the book, “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison: The Making of a Masterpiece” by Michael Streissguth).

Aside from a nearly five-decades-old album, there is a deeper story behind the granite walls of Folsom State Prison.

How it began

The prison has a rich history, going back to 1868, when the Board of Prison Directors selected Folsom as the site of a branch prison for San Quentin.

They also agreed to a proposal by the Natoma Water and Mining Company which gave the state 350 acres and all the granite quarries on those acres. The agreement gave the State perpetual rights to the first fall of the water power which was more than 200 horsepower.

In return, the State gave the company $15,000 in convict labor at the rate of 50 cents per day for each convict employed.

While the site was chosen, construction didn’t begin until 1874. Problems between the state and the construction contractor stalled any progress.

In 1878, a new contractor was chosen and the first cell block (B Block), with 162 cells, was completed before the year ended. Two years later, A Block was completed with 166 cells.

On July 26, 1880, the prison received its first 44 inmates on transfer from San Quentin. Prisoner No. 1 was Chong Hing, serving time on arson charges. By 1897, there were 900 prisoners serving time at Folsom.

The cell blocks didn't touch exterior walls to limit the chances of escape.

The cell blocks didn’t touch exterior walls to limit the chances of escape.

The 8 feet by 7 feet cells featured doors of solid iron with an 8-inch by 2-inch viewing port. Each door had six holes drilled into the bottom (more were later added). There was no heat or plumbing. Light was provided by an oil lamp.

The cell blocks were constructed inside another building, without touching its exterior walls. “The cells were built in this fashion to prohibit escapes from the facility by limiting access to the outside world,” according to “Images of America: Folsom, California,” written by the Folsom Historical Society and published by Arcadia Publishing.

A prison without walls

Today the prison is known for its imposing walls, constructed using granite quarried by the prisoners. Originally, Folsom Prison was surrounded by towers, giving guards an unobstructed view of the prisoners as they worked but the walls would come much later.

A prison without walls best describes Folsom prior to 1923, such as can be seen from this photo taken from across the American River.

A prison without walls best describes Folsom prior to 1923, such as can be seen from this photo taken from across the American River.

According to the Sacramento County Historical Society’s “Golden Notes” (Vol. 39, Numbers 3 and 4, 1993), “the prison yard occupied 52 acres of land, on mostly high ground. It was in the form of an irregular triangle, of which the river front was the longest side. At the time, the plan was to surround the yard with a wooden stockade, double-planked, and to utilize prison labor to construct around it a secure granite wall.”

In 1893, Folsom Telegraph editor Thaddeus McFarland visited the prison and wrote, “For a prison without walls, it is doubtful if any prisoner placed in Folsom Prison will ever escape. … It is likely he’ll remain there until the term of his sentence has expired.”

It took more than four decades for the prison to be surrounded by solid walls.

The “Biennial report on the State Board of Charities and Corrections,” published in 1905, chastises the Board of Prison Directors for not completing the wall.

“The need for such a wall must be conceded; it has been urged upon the Directors almost from the time the prison was established, and if any demonstration were needed it was furnished by the disastrous break that occurred last year, when several desperate men escaped,” the report states. “With a wall around the prison, these men could not have escaped. The absence of a wall … offering constant encouragements to attempts to escape, contributes to a spirit of unrest for the prisoners and … imposes an unfair burden of responsibility on the warden.”

By 1909, construction on the wall was underway. “The walls of hand-cut blue granite which now surround the prison, were brought to the final stage of completion in 1923,” according to the “Golden Notes” publication.

A legacy of dams

Water has always been a precious commodity in California and in Folsom it served many purposes. The American River provided not only a natural barrier for the prison, it also supplied power and a way to transport logs from upriver.

Horatio Gates Livermore and his family gained control of Natoma Water and Mining and by 1866 were planning to dam the American River at Folsom. It was part of a “pivotal step in Livermore’s long-range plans to transform Folsom into a manufacturing center by harnessing the American River,” according to “The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway,” published by the American River Natural History Association.

Central to the plan was a dam of granite and concrete at Folsom to provide a “still pond” to hold logs floated down from Livermore’s logging operation near Georgetown. From the dam, a 40-foot canal would lead downstream for a mile and a half, creating an 80-foot fall of water to generate power.

Construction of the dam began in 1867 but they ran into trouble and looked to the State to use convict labor. Livermore offered more land near the prison as compensation.

The dam at Folsom Prison and the prison canal are shown in this undated photo.

Folsom’s first dam was built at Folsom Prison. Prison inmates built the dam using granite blocks quarried on the prison grounds. Water was turned into the canal and the prison powerhouse became operative in 1893. (Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation.)

Logging began in June 1890 and a year later the first log reached the prison dam. Running into difficulty with the rocky bottom of the river, Livermore sought to use the canal running alongside the prison to allow the logs to continue of their journey downriver. Prison officials were reluctant to adjust the gates at the canal for fear it would interfere with power generation.

In 1896, the company built a sawmill operated on electric power. The mill could cut 75,000 board feet of lumber per day.

The mill shut down in 1899 after heavy rains and a swollen river forced 3 million feet of logs over the dam.

Construction of the present-day Folsom Dam and power plant was completed in 1956 by the Army Corps of Engineers. The dam is just upriver from Folsom Prison.

This 2002 CDCR file photo shows the remains of the old dam at Folsom State Prison.

This 2002 CDCR file photo shows the remains of the old dam at Folsom State Prison.

Did you know?

Charles Aull was named Warden in 1887.

Charles Aull was named Warden in 1887.

  • During its early years, Folsom Prison had two temporary Wardens: John McComb and Thomas Pockman. The first official Warden was Charles Aull, appointed in 1887. He served as Warden until his passing in 1899. Thomas Wilkinson replaced him as Warden.
  • Folsom Prison was the first prison in the nation to have electric lights.
  • The first ice shipped from Folsom Prison was January 1894. The prison’s ice plant was so successful the State Legislature appropriated $162,000 for purchasing additional ice-making machinery. The plant is credited with contributing to the development of California’s fruit-growing industry, making it possible for the fruit to be transported to markets throughout the U.S. By 1909, California fruit growers were shipping a $12 million orange crop to the east, packed in ice. By 1930, it had grown to $100 million, according to “A History of Folsom,” by Wray Barrows.

Folsom’s first warden

Folsom Prison Warden Charles Aull, appointed in 1887, was known for being strict, but also had different ideas about how to handle a prison.

Aull was an ex-captain of turnkeys at San Quentin and a former deputy sheriff from Stanislaus County.

“The earliest proponent of recreation at Folsom was Warden Charles Aull. Starting in 1894, he organized baseball teams with games being played on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays,” according to the Sacramento Public Library.

He served in the post for nearly 12 years until he fell ill. His sickness made headlines in the state, as represented by this clipping from The San Francisco Call, published Monday, April 11, 1898.

aull, charles newspaper clipping 1898

“He is looked upon by the experts as the foremost of America’s criminologists. From the moment he took his office, he instituted a system of discipline at the prison that is unequaled at any penal institution of its magnitude in the Union. Folsom Prison is the dread of evil-doers in the State, and yet prisoners are treated with the utmost kindness,” the article states. “Some of the most desperate criminals of the Western States have been given into his charge, but by his strong though just rule they realized that he was their master, and seldom were the rules of the prison violated by them. Folsom Prison, as conducted by Warden Aull, is looked upon as a model institution of its kind, and Warden Aull is considered by the Prison Commissioners as the most competent man that has ever held such a position in the State.”

According to the article, Aull had been ill for weeks and “was brought to (San Francisco) where he would be nearer his physicians.” The newspaper reported he was “at the point of death at the Grand Hotel.” Aull died the following year after having suffered for months with a “disease of the kidneys,” according to the newspaper.

Historical timeline

  • 1858: Legislature opted to relieve overcrowding at San Quentin by constructing a branch prison, yet it would be a decade before a site was selected.
  • 1868: Folsom selected as site of branch prison for San Quentin.
  • 1874: Prison constructed started but stalls over quarrels about contractor payment.
  • 1878: Construction resumed and first cell block completed by end of the year.
  • 1880: First 44 prisoners received from San Quentin.
  • 1885: First female prison received on Nov. 7. Note: Only six women were ever housed at Folsom Prison and none since 1929.
  • 1890: First stone for the Prison Power House was laid in March.
  • 1891: Prison Power House construction completed.
  • 1893: Folsom Prison became the first prison in the nation to have electric lights.
  • 1894: An ice plant at the prison power house became the first prison industry established at Folsom.
  • 1895: Rock Crushing Plant using convict labor began operation.
  • 1903: Greystone Chapel completed.
  • 1907: Construction began on the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Folsom Prison. It was built using granite quarried by convict labor and facility construction was handled by convicts “under the direction of the state engineer,” according to the Sacramento County Historical Society.
  • 1909: Granite wall construction began. Prison purchased locomotive engine No. 2083 from Southern Pacific Railroad Co. for $4,850.
  • 1911: Construction on State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was still not complete but inmates were being housed in some of the cells, which were not designed for hardened criminals. The state’s plans for the hospital were abandoned in 1914. The derelict building was torn down in the 1950s.
  • 1916: First Folsom Road Camp established.
  • 1923: Granite wall construction completed.

Sources: Sacramento County Historical Society, Folsom Historical Society, Folsom Prison Museum, Wray Burrows “A History of Folsom,” “Images of America: Folsom, California” and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation records.