Jim Brown spent 32 years behind the walls of Folsom State Prison and has stab scars to prove it.
His experiences make the retired correctional officer an ideal guide for the Folsom History Museum's latest exhibit: "Locked Down: 125 Years at Folsom Prison."
The exhibit graphically portrays the legend and lore of California's second-oldest penitentiary, regaling visitors with tales of famous inmates, bloody prison escapes, executions and a memorable concert by Johnny Cash.
"It shows a little bit of everyday life in prison and what it was like in the beginning and today," said Brown, who provided Folsom History Museum director Karen Mehring with the artifacts and information to assemble the exhibit.
The materials, including a hangman's noose, a collection of weapons confiscated from inmates and a replica of a prison cell, are on loan from the Folsom Prison Museum, which Brown manages.
Mehring said the decision to recognize the prison's legacy with an exhibit was a no-brainer.
"When you think of Folsom, you think of Folsom Prison. It would be stupid not to honor the 125th anniversary and the stories that go on living with it," Mehring said.
Mehring said attendance for the exhibit, which runs through July 10, has been strong, particularly with "old-timers" in the Folsom area.
Worldwide, prison museums are popular tourist attractions - with Alcatraz the premier example. Last year, more than 1.3 million people visited the abandoned island prison in San Francisco Bay, and sales from the three bookstores and audio tour contributed significantly to all the park sites in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said park spokesman Rich Weideman.
C. Morgan Grefe, who wrote her college doctoral dissertation on prison museums, has a theory about why the public is so fascinated with such places.
"As silly as it sounds, we like to see how the other half lives," said Grefe, director of education and public programming with the Rhode Island Historical Society.
Grefe said museums offer the public a safe way to satisfy its curiosity, teased by Hollywood's penchant for prison movies.
Jim Henley, manager of the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, said the American public has a long tradition of being engrossed with crime and criminals - and how it relates to them.
"I see it all the time," Henley said of museum visitors. "People want to know, 'Is there a bad boy in the family?'
"Outside of the official use of mug books (by law enforcement), the biggest use is by people trying to find a relative," he said.
Allen and Kathy Bray of Folsom can't seem to get their fill of prison museums. They've toured Alcatraz several times and also visited the Folsom Prison Museum, operated by retired correctional officers.
While visiting the "Locked Down" exhibit last week, Allen Bray said, "I like the stories. It's survival of the fittest."
Kathy Bray said she's fascinated by the circumstances that land someone in prison. "As a very young person, they may steal a car and find themselves in prison for life," she said.
Although Folsom State Prison formally opened to receive its first prisoners July 26, 1880, prison officials commemorated the 125th anniversary two years ago to coincide with the date the first prison buildings were completed.
The "Locked Down" exhibit offers plenty of stories and photographs from Folsom State Prison's long and sometimes lurid history. For example, there's the story of the 1937 escape attempt, in which Warden Clarence Larkin was taken hostage by inmates. When Larkin refused to give the order to officers to lay down their weapons, he was stabbed and died six days later.
His killers, whose mug shots are displayed in the exhibit, were the first to be executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.
An unused hangman's rope also dangles from the museum ceiling, a grisly reminder of the 93 men who were executed at Folsom State Prison before San Quentin became the state's sole place of prisoner execution.
Also on display is a glass case of inmate-manufactured weapons that were confiscated by guards. They include a "shank" - a makeshift weapon for stabbing - made by melting down plastic foam drinking cups.
Brown is all too familiar with such weapons. When he was working in the prison's psychiatric ward, an inmate stabbed him seven times with a dental scraping tool.
A centerpiece of the museum exhibit is a full-size replica of a 4-by-10-foot prison cell, complete with bunk bed, sink, toilet and a few illegal touches made by inmates, such as a tattoo gun and devices used to heat water.
The cell was built for Warden G.A. Mueller's retirement dinner in 2000, Brown said.
To help museum visitors understand how cramped a prison cell is, Brown tells them to imagine living in a space the size of a bathroom.
"I ask couples, 'How would you live in there?' " he said.
Along one wall of the museum are photos of notorious inmates who served time at the prison, including Caryl Chessman, Charles Manson and Danny Trejo, who since his release has become a successful character actor, appearing in movies such as "Spy Kids" and "Con Air."
Timothy Leary, the LSD guru who coined the phrase "Turn on, tune in, drop out," also spent time at Folsom Prison in the 1970s for marijuana possession.
During his stint behind bars, Leary was part of an inmate crew that grew produce under Brown's supervision.
Although he never was incarcerated at Folsom Prison, singer Johnny Cash may be the institution's best-remembered personality. On Jan. 13, 1968, Cash performed for a prison audience, a show that was recorded and released as the now-legendary live album "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison."
Brown said when he hears Cash's voice on the album, "He almost makes it sound like he's one of the inmates."
Besides appealing to the public's sometimes morbid curiosity, prison museums also serve other purposes, said Grefe, the museum scholar.
In some cases - such as Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, opened in 1829 at the urging of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons - the prison museum tells the story of prison reform.
"It emphasizes that the individual can make a difference and people should be aware of prisons," Grefe said.
At other prison museums such as the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville and the Wyoming Frontier Prison in Rawlins, Grefe said the intent is deterrence - to remind people of the grim realities of prison.
"You can see the old electric chair and gas chamber," she said, referring to two examples of what American society has used at various times as its ultimate expressions of deterrence and punishment.
A closer look
What: "Locked Down: 125 Years at Folsom Prison" history exhibit on display through July 10.
Where: Folsom History Museum, 823 Sutter St., Folsom.
Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Admission: $2 for adults; $1 for youth; children under 12 are free.
For more prison history, Folsom Prison Museum on Prison Road is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Easter . Call first at (916) 985-2561, ext. 4589.
History of Folsom Prison
Folsom History Museum's current exhibit features Folsom Prison, which has been a looming presence in town for 125 years. Here's a sample of some milestones at the big house:
1858: The state Legislature decides to build a branch prison to relieve overcrowding at San Quentin State Prison.
July 1880: Folsom State Prison officially opens with 44 inmates transferred by boat and rail from San Quentin.
1912: Officials end the practice of using corporal punishment, which had included straitjackets and tying prisoners by their thumbs and hands.
1923: Outer prison walls completed. Before that, limestone deadlines marked prison boundaries. If a prisoner crossed the line, he was immediately shot.
September 1937: Warden Clarence Larkin is taken hostage by inmates during a prison riot. He dies of stab wounds six days later, and his killers are the first to be executed in San Quentin's gas chamber.
January 1968: Singer Johnny Cash performs for the prison audience, a show that is recorded and released as the popular live album "Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison."
1986: New Folsom Prison (now called California State Prison, Sacramento), on the same property as Folsom State Prison, receives its first inmates. It has no wall but is surrounded by double chain-link fences topped with razor wire.
1993: Folsom State Prison's custody level is lowered from maximum security to low-medium security.
July 2005: Folsom State Prison marks its 125th anniversary holding prisoners. (The 125th anniversary marking the beginning of construction in 1878 was recognized in 2003.)