Most people remember Johnny Cash as a legendary country music singer – the iconic “Man in Black” who sang tales of hard living and fighting against the system. Christians are familiar with his story of redemption – a rebel turned evangelist who often used the stage to proclaim the saving grace of God through Jesus and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps less familiar to listeners of Cash’s music is his commitment to the legal reform of the prison systems in the United States. In addition to his many performances inside prison walls, Cash was a tireless advocate on behalf of those for whom he performed, even speaking before Congress about the nature and purpose of incarceration.
A recent BBC article examines the singer’s passion for those behind bars, and the efforts he made to change the way prisons were run across the country. The article reveals how Cash related to prisoners, and how his Christian faith fueled his efforts.
“I think Cash had a feeling that somehow he had been endowed with this fame in order to do something with it, and one of the ways he could do something with it was talking about prison reform,” says Johnny Cash biographer Michael Streissguth. “He connected with the idea that a man could be redeemed.”
Cash did more than talk about prison reform, he actively campaigned for it, even making personal sacrifices to ensure that prisoners were treated with respect. The article tells of a 1969 concert at Cummins Prison in Arkansas, generally thought to be the worst prison in the state. During his performance, Cash vowed $5,000 of his own money to build a chapel in the prison, and challenged Governor Winthrop Rockefeller to match his pledge. The chapel built as a result of that donation (and the governor’s matching check) remains today, a testament of Johnny Cash’s concern for the spiritual life of those behind bars.
In 1972, Cash appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on prison reform. He relayed stories of deplorable conditions and almost inconceivable injustices done to inmates, and urged the lawmakers to take a stand on behalf of these individuals. He proposed a number of reforms, including the segregation of hardened criminals and first-time offenders, the reclassification of certain offenses to allow for alternative rehabilitation programs, and the use of counseling to prepare prisoners for release. Many of these proposals remain at the heart of prison reform efforts even now.
“People have to care for prison reform to come about,” Cash told the assembled members of Congress. Through his music, he was able to not only raise awareness, but public concern for prisoners, and to promote rehabilitation as a key part of the prison system. Cash’s greatest legacy, however, might not be songs like “San Quentin,” which talks of the hopelessness and despair inside prison, but the efforts he made to ensure that such hopelessness did not endure forever.