Prison System: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Status: Active since 1880. Second oldest prison in California.
Offender Gender: Male and Female
Security Level: Maximum; Medium; Minimum
Distinguishing Feature: One of the most famous prisons in popular culture, Folsom Prison was featured in Johnny Cash’s iconic song “Folsom Prison Blues” and was later the site of two of Johnny Cash’s concerts, which were made into a live album. Folsom Prison has also been the site of numerous movies, including The Outlaws, Jericho Mile, and True Believers. Because of its presence in popular culture, Folsom is actually a tourist attraction. While visitors do not have access to the working parts of the prison, they can visit the Folsom Prison Museum.
Number of Inmates: 2,381 (as of February 2016)
Maximum Capacity: 2,066; operating at 115.2% occupancy
While Folsom Prison has played an important role in the development of criminal justice in the United States and was the first prison to recognize the importance of recreational activities for prisoner health, it would be a mistake to assume it is a progressive prison. Instead, Folsom has historically housed some of the most dangerous prisoners in California and continues to do so today. The living conditions at Folsom have been making the news for more than a decade, and prisoner response to these conditions has been equally noteworthy. Folsom has been the sight of numerous prison riots, many of which have resulted in the death of inmates or prison staff. Ironically, these deaths have helped bolster pro-death penalty arguments by people who suggest that imprisonment is insufficient to protect people from the danger that a killer will kill again, but can only restrict the pool of potential next victims. Folsom has also become an epicenter of gang violence and the gang rivalries inside the prison are considered some of the most dangerous of any prison population.
Because Folsom contains different security areas, its population reflects a wide variety of criminal backgrounds. Folsom is primarily a Medium Security General Population Level II facility, but also has Minimum Security Level I inmates. It has male and female inmates, who are housed in separate facilities. The gang population at Folsom is one of the most active in the United States; in fact Folsom and San Quentin are considered two source locations for a large amount of gang activity. This activity requires prison officials to be constantly vigilant about new inmate gang membership and watch out for potential gang violence. It can also result in preventative administrative segregation.
Folsom consists of five different housing units for its male inmates. Each cell includes a toilet, sink, bunks, and a storage space for inmate possessions. Prisoners can have personal possessions including radios and TVs in their cells, and can use personal funds to buy snacks from the canteen. Prisoners work a 35 to 40 hour workweek, and their activities are generally focused on keeping the prison running. Prisoners who perform jobs at the prison spend considerably more time outside of their cells than prisoners who do not work; prisoners in administrative segregation can spend 23 hours per day in a cell.
Overcrowding is a problem at Folsom; it has the most populous cellblock in the entire United States and is over capacity. The prison includes two dining halls, three exercise yards, and visitor facilities for both contact and non-contact visits. While the living conditions inside Folsom may not be as restrictive as conditions in other prisons, the overcrowded conditions make it difficult for inmates and for prison staff and may exacerbate gang violence. Therefore, the staff has to exercise as much control over inmates as possible to reduce potential conflicts.
Theoretically, there are a number of prison programs available at Folsom Prison, though a lack of financial resources means that these programs are often underfunded and unavailable to the number of prisoners who want to utilize them. There are a number of vocational/work programs at the prison including: license plate factory, sign shop, furniture shop, metal fabrication, print shop digital services, modular building enterprise, pre-apprenticeship programs, masonry, building maintenance, office services, welding, and auto mechanics. Inmates can also access basic education such as an adult high school program, a GED program, and an English as a Second Language program. Inmates can access higher education, but may need to bear the financial costs of those programs. There are a variety of support groups and self-help programs available through the prison including substance abuse programs, fitness programs, and parenting programs. The prison participates in two types of re-entry programs: one aimed at helping eligible inmates transition to the working environment through pre-release employment training and job search assistance and the other that focuses on helping inmates transition from prison life to family life.
Historically, the prison has produced water, hydroelectric power, lumber, and ice. It is located near the Folsom Dam, which supplies hydroelectric power. Because it became a source for hydroelectric power, Folsom was the first prison in the United States to have electricity. Folsom’s ice production, which began in 1894, is thought to have played a crucial part in California’s evolution as an agricultural leader, because it enabled growers to ship their fruit without excessive spoilage. Folsom is also famous for license plate production.
Built as a branch prison facility to California’s oldest prison, San Quentin, Folsom Prison was established in 1880. Folsom Prison could be considered one of the first for-profit prisons. The Natoma Water and Mining Company traded 350 acres of land, their granite quarries, and perpetual rights to some of the water produced on the land to the state for the prison facility in exchange for $15,000 in convict labor. Construction was completed on B Block in 1878 and A Block in 1880, and San Quentin transferred its first prisoner, Chong Hing, to Folsom Prison on July 26, 1880.
Folsom Prison was historically known as the prison without walls, because it was surrounded by granite quarries instead of the traditional walls that characterized prisons of that time period. However, the prison was eventually surrounded by walls, ironically created from the granite that the prisoners quarried, and these walls were determined to be necessary almost immediately, because of the large number of escape attempts that accompanied a prison without walls.
Folsom’s first warden, Charles Aull, was an early proponent of recreation opportunities for inmates and organized baseball games for the inmates. He attempted to balance harsh discipline with fairness, and, during his tenure, Folsom Prison was considered a model penal institution.
In 1907, Folsom began its transition to house the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which was to be a separate facility on the prison property, but those plans were abandoned in 1914.
Until 2013, Folsom was a men’s facility, but in January of that year it opened a stand-alone facility for medium and minimum security female inmates.
Folsom Prison either currently houses or has housed some of the most infamous criminals in U.S. history. These criminals include: Danny Trejo, Shorty Rossi, rick James, Suge Knight, Edmund Kemper, Erik Menendez, and James Mitose. Its most infamous current or former resident is probably Charles Manson.
Year Built or Opened: 1880 Warden or Supervisor: Folsom State Prison Daily Inmate Count: 2,381 Security Level(s): Minimum - Maximum
Inmate Name and Inmate ID
P.O. BOX 715071
Represa, CA 95671
300 Prison Road
Represa, CA 95671