Johnny Cash and Herbert Hoover Confront Prison Reform

On display until March 19 is our temporary exhibit, 1968: A Folsom Redemption. The exhibit tells the story of the Johnny Cash live recording concert for the inmates of Folsom and its aftermath. The concert rebooted Cash’s career and began a series of concerts he gave at various prisons. He became an inspiration for many in prison to turn their lives around and lead productive lives when they were released. Cash also testified before Congress on the need for prison reform. That is the connective thread with Herbert Hoover. Hoover never met Johnny Cash nor expressed an interest in country music. Because of the tendency of historians only to focus on economic issues during Hoover’s presidency, overlooked are many other significant achievements. Reforming federal prisons and criminal justice was the first time in modern history that a president made important advances on both issues.

Most sociologists and criminal justice experts have long known about Hoover’s impact on modernizing the federal prison and court system. Historian James D. Calder who wrote the most comprehensive study of Hoover’s initiatives paints this portrait of what Hoover faced: “But the fact remains that on March 4, 1929, federal policing attracted low popular respect, federal court dockets were jammed with civil and criminal cases, federal prisons were filled beyond capacities, and the impact of new forms of crime called for new administrative organizations and new legislation. Moreover, federal agencies hardly imagined they were related to each other in a common mission.” The typical Hooverian approach to solving problems was to find the leading experts to investigate and gather information. George W. Wickersham led a commission to provide a “scientific” study of crime and law enforcement. Too often, the Wickersham Commission is dismissed since it did not make a recommendation about the question of Prohibition. Historian’s obsession with Prohibition has obscured the other major recommendations in the report that set the foundation for later presidential policies dealing with federal prison and court reforms.

Calder once again describes the challenges Hoover faced: “First, disarray in most federal justice bureaus at the end of the 1920s was clear evidence of low administrative standing and policy neglect. Second, few measures were proposed to address problems of federal justice, and there was no comprehensive plan for linking constitution prescriptions concerning individual rights with police practices, prosecutorial behavior, and keepers of punishment facilities. Third, no intellectual resources had been invested in the evaluation of federal justice organizations. Finally, between 1900 and 1928, presidents failed to acknowledge the emergence of new forms of crime, especially organized, and applications of new technologies and strategies to counter criminal invention and entrepreneurship.” Previous blog posts detailed Hoover’s personal oversight of federal agencies to collaborate in putting Al Capone in jail using his failure to pay income tax as the justification. “Between May 13 and 27, 1930,” according to Calder, “Hoover signed five measures to establish a hospital for defective delinquents, to create the Unites States Parole Board, to authorize the Public Health Service to treat federal prisoner, to create the Federal Bureau of Prisons and to establish federal jails, and to construct two new federal prisons.”

Individuals in prisons are invisible to the public and their concerns ignored. What Johnny Cash and Herbert Hoover understood was that most of these individuals would one day be released back into society. The iron bars, confinement cells, and structured lives provided the punishment. But a recognition of the individual’s humanity and a sense of hope for a new start in life also needed to be part of the equation. Both Johnny Cash and Herbert Hoover were in harmony on that score.

4 thoughts on “Johnny Cash and Herbert Hoover Confront Prison Reform

    1. No, the film is shown repeatedly throughout the day in the Olberg Room, next to the museum galleries. I hope you enjoy your visit!

  1. Any chance the exhibit will be extended a week? We have friends coming into town who would love to see the Johnny Cash exhibit.

    1. Sorry, the exhibit must be taken down on schedule. I hope you can visit our next exhibit, opening April 15: “Exquisite Miniatures by Wes and Rachelle Siegrist.”

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