I love Johnny Cash. The Man in Black -- the orginial MIB -- had that gravelly, instantly recognizable voice, that scraggled baritone infused with Everyman gravitas. He gave free concerts at prisons across the country. At Folsom Prison has a rock-solid spot on my top-ten-albums-of-all-time list. If you haven't heard it (or heard it in awhile), give it a spin (I listen to it whenever I need encouragement on the job). A man with his own hoard of inner demons, Cash believed the old saying, "There but for the grace of God go I." When Cash sang in prison, there was no pity, only empathy.
And that empathy led him to act, to speak for those he left behind bars. A wonderful article from BBC News chronicles Johnny Cash's efforts to support prison reforms and fairer punishments for offenders. Call it "Mr. Cash Goes to Washington."
Fitting the gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the "Man in Black" performed for inmates all over the US, always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners' rights.
"He always identified with the underdog," says Tommy Cash, Johnny's youngest brother.
"He identified with the prisoners because many of them had served their sentences and had been rehabilitated in some cases, but were still kept there the rest of their lives. He felt a great empathy with those people." ...
"In the 1960s in America, there was a growing realisation that prisons were ineffective," says Streissguth. "They were merely training inmates to be better criminals. So the recidivism rate, people coming back to incarceration, was very high."Hmmm...sounds familiar, doesn't it?
Cash, an ardent believer in the power of rehabilitation over punishment, became the go-to voice for the media on this new hot topic.
"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 Streissguth, who also believes Cash's deeply-held religious beliefs were a factor in his championing of the cause. "He connected with the idea that a man could be redeemed." ...Indeed, faith is one of the biggest motivators of people fighting for prison and sentencing reforms today. My own Christian faith is the strongest motivation behind my work for FAMM. You can hear more about that here.
Cash not only outlined to the senators on Capitol Hill what he thought was wrong with the American penal system, he also told them how he believed it could be improved.
His proposals included the separation of first-timers and hardened criminals, the reclassification of offences to keep minor offenders out of prison, a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment, and counselling to prepare convicts for the outside world and reduce the possibility of them reoffending.
At a time when countries around the world are still wrestling with the question of how to handle those they incarcerate, many of the issues Cash raised that day feel just as relevant today.
The fact that we are still debating them 40 years later suggests Cash failed. But did he?It would be wonderful to have an active, high-status musician -- a Katy Perry or a Jay-Z or a Rihanna or a Toby Keith -- step up and try to pick up where the Man in Black left off, champion prison and sentencing reform, and bring the issue of overincarceration into the national spotlight.
Molly M. Gill
Government Affairs Counsel, FAMM