Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Folsom Prison Blues

Folsom Prison
     Folsom Prison is a fascinating place. It’s not somewhere you want to spend a vacation, but for those of you who have never spent time there – I think that would be most of us – I thought it would be interesting to take a look at this famous resort. I should mention that Johnny Cash was not an inmate, but he did perform at Folsom. Charles Manson and other killers were housed in Folsom Prison, which is second only to Alcatraz in fame.

     I once wrote a novel entitled, “Granite Veil” and later revised it and published it on Amazon as an eBook under the title, “Folsom Parallax.” (You can download “Parallax” and “The Huckleberry Days of the ‘50s” on Amazon for $2.99 each.) During a year of research for the novel, I was offered a personal tour of Folsom and learned a bit about its history.

     When you walk down the corridor between rows of cells, it’s just like in the movies where hands with mirrors pop out of the bars to see who is approaching. Inmates actually do make license plates and prisoner containment cages for the most violent. But the history of the prison is interesting. Cell Block #5 is the oldest cell block in the state and probably the most unique. It has been painted pure white with stark black doors. I used this contrast metaphorically in the book, but the actual history of the prison is very interesting. At least it was to me.

      If you’re interested, click on “Read More” below where I’ll quote a little history directly from my novel:

      “The massive granite walls of Folsom State Prison rise ominously from beneath the earth like some strange creature in an antiquated Japanese horror film. Referred to as “the old castle,” Folsom Prison is an impressive and foreboding rock structure, garnished with razor wire and punctuated emphatically with menacing guard towers.

     “The Prison did, in fact, emerge from beneath the earth. Construction of the old section began in 1878 in a rock quarry, using granite dredged from the ground directly beneath where it sits today. The malefic granite walls and the internal structures were built by the very prisoners they would contain – slowly and painfully with hammers, chisels and bare hands.

      “The hand-hewn granite blocks that make up the prison walls extend 15 feet below ground level to prevent tunneling, and the buildings that house inmates continue the impenetrable gray granite theme, introduced so inauspiciously by the wall.

      “Folsom granite is unique in its consistent dark color. The remarkable work of these early inmates resulted in a spectacular array of solid rock guard towers, granite cell blocks and sturdy retaining walls, all neatly framed by the infamous wall. The sheer cliffs of the American River lie just beyond the walls - an additional obstacle to freedom.

      “Cell Block #5, now known as Housing Unit 5, like all the others, is built of solid granite; however, the heavy iron doors and huge trap locks can only be found in Cell Block #5. During its early years Cell Block #5 stood naked and alone against the elements. Just two long rock structures running parallel, two tiers tall. Cell doors faced one another with an empty space between the two buildings.

      “There was no roof connecting the two structures, no floor, and no electricity. The cells had dirt floors and no bunks nor fixtures of any kind. The ‘turn of the century’ prisoners were issued a package of straw for a bed mat and two buckets. A hand-dug trench ran the full length of the structures between the two buildings to serve the purpose of allowing the wastewater and sewage to pass from the facility.

      “Each morning prisoners were required to step outside their cells and empty the bucket that served as a toilet into the trench. The remaining bucket held drinking and washing water hauled in by cart from nearby lakes or streams. Prisoners quickly learned not to confuse the two buckets.

      “In 1880 through the turn of the century, the cell block tiers were lit from the outside by kerosene lamps. Since there was neither light nor heat inside the cells, each prisoner was issued one candle per month to serve as light . . . and heat. Energy conservation was practiced with sincerity in Cell Block #5, long before it was considered politically correct. 

     “Ventilation inside the granite cells was non-existent in those early days. The heavy iron doors contained a single slot through which food was passed. This slot faced the infamous trench, which did not add much to the ambiance of the cell block.

      “Other than this single slot in the door, there was no circulation of air, nor any light or heat in winter, except for the lone and sparingly used candle. The thick granite blocks did provide some insulation against the intense summer heat and cold winter nights, but living conditions for the inmates of Folsom around the turn of the century were harsh by any measure.

      “Cell Block #5 has since been enclosed, roofed, plumbed, ventilated, and furnished with electricity. Prisoners now have lavish amenities, such as bunks with mattresses and the legendary “trench” has been upgraded to a metal toilet with a sink built on its backside - luxurious accommodations by comparison.”

*   *   * 

     You may not find all of this as interesting as I did, but it’s a piece of California history. As a symbolic sideline, it’s fascinating that the early prisoners built the very cells that confined them. They were forced to do it. But isn’t that what we do voluntarily?


  1. Great description of some of the early history of California...(sent shivers down my spine). If prison conditions were the same today, I'm sure there would be FAR less criminals. Great job in writing your insightful description! It reminded me of an even more historic 'plumbing' system in ancient Rome...only theirs was the 'Alpha' version. (This was right around the time they were inventing the acqueducts). A trench was dug in the middle of the street between the facing houses. All day long the population would dump their human offal, garbage, and so-forth in the open trench. At night water was sent down the trench to rinse away the refuse...in the morning the neighbors would go out side with pitchers and jugs to fill up their daily drinking water from the same trench. (Almost makes Folsom sound like a joyous first-rate convention facility).
    R. Thompson

    1. Holy cow! I'm not sure the water in the canals of Venice is a whole lot better today. But that's a bit of historical "plumbing" technology I'd rather not think on for very long.

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