At the time, Arkansas had arguably the worst prison system in the country. “Trusties,” themselves prisoners, policed the grounds. Many inmates were tortured and abused, while others suffered from unspeakable sanitary conditions, lack of food, and woeful medical treatment. In the late 1960s, despite many calls for politicians to usher in a tough new era of “law and order,” Cash believed in treating convicts humanely. “Prisoners are people,” he said. “They’re alive. And they can change.” Cash donated $5,000 to construct a chapel at the Cummins prison, while Governor Rockefeller contributed $10,000. “He can afford it,” Cash teased the governor, though Cash was also a wealthy man who lived in a 13,000 square foot mansion in Tennessee. Even so, Cash’s poor upbringing in rural Arkansas and his songs about drunks, criminals, and outlaws, made him popular with blue collar audiences. For them, Cash’s music had a directness and honesty. At Cummins, Commissioner Sarver announced on stage that Cash had said “some things I’ve been afraid to say.” Sarver then proceeded to give Cash an honorary life sentence. The show concluded with Cash and the governor mounting a mule-drawn cart that carried them around the prison yard, much to the delight of the inmates.
Three weeks after Cash’s visit to Cummins, the Arkansas legislature gave the governor unprecedented funding for the state’s prisons. Up until that time, places like Cummins had been self-supporting, which, while pleasing fiscal conservatives, contributed to the corruption in the system. Johnny Cash certainly helped promote Rockefeller’s efforts at prison reform, and the governor returned the favor. In the fall of 1970, in honor of men like Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell, “who have won the hearts of all Americans,” he declared October “Country Music Month.
Conditions became so bad for inmates that in 1970, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, citing the Eight Amendment’s probation against “cruel and unusual punishment,” ruled the entire state system unconstitutional. Governor Rockefeller had made prison reform one of the cornerstones of his administration. To help him, he had appointed Robert Sarver, who had previously worked in West Virginia, as the commissioner of corrections after the dismissal of controversial reformer Thomas Murton (whose exploits became the basis of the film Brubaker). Not long before Cash played at Cummins, more than two hundred skeletons were unearthed on the prison grounds, most of which officials could not identify. Murton’s discovery created another public relations nightmare for Rockefeller, who was up for re-election.
As Rockefeller struggled with the prisons, Johnny Cash was riding high from the success of his Folsom live album and new marriage. Long known as a rebel with a dark streak, who popped pills, wrecked cars and trashed hotels rooms, Cash seemed to have vanquished his personal demons. With June Carter at his side, he seemed happier than ever. But in early August, tragedy struck Cash’s band. On Aug. 5, Cash’s longtime guitarist, Luther Perkins, died after falling asleep with a lit cigarette, setting fire to his Tennessee home.
Cash played his only concert ever for Arkansas inmates. It proved one of the highlights of Rockefeller’s second term. Unfortunately, neither he nor Cash could win the public relations battle over the prisons. In January 1970, Tom Murton published “Accomplices to the Crime,” a blistering indictment of the prisons and the Rockefeller administration. Without Johnny Cash to help him, however, Rockefeller appeared before much smaller crowds. In November, with the prisons again in the headlines, Dale Bumpers crushed Rockefeller in a landslide.
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