Folsom prison museum volunteers are no longer singing the blues after receiving a green light from Gov. Jerry Brown to replace their 900-square-foot building with a new facility more than 30 times as large.
Brown signed Assembly Bill 166 on Aug. 17. It allows the state Department of General Services and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to enter a lease for a proposed 30,000-square-foot museum, the Big House Prison Museum, next to Folsom State Prison.
Ten years in the planning, the museum aims to to honor correctional officers and educate guests on the history behind California prisons, with an emphasis on Folsom prison, which opened in 1880 and is the second oldest state prison.
“We want to showcase the profession and the programs the inmates do that are positive for society,” said Jim Brown, retired correctional officer and lieutenant at Folsom prison. “We want to show both sides. Most people don’t have a clue what goes on in prison.”
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The plan was conceived by Old Guard Foundation Inc., a nonprofit that maintains and operates the museum, which enlisted the support of Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, R-Roseville, to introduce legislation.
“This idea and request was brought to me by retired correctional officers while I was touring the small and already existing museum,” Gaines said. “I also saw the need for an upgrade.”
Gov. Brown vetoed the first bill in 2014. It would have leased public land for up to 50 years along Folsom Prison Road for the construction of the Big House Prison Museum. In his veto message, Brown said he would rather the museum use existing authority provided in the statute than a nongovernmental entity to lease the property. The new bill asked for the same 50-year lease but included more information on the nonprofit group and the goals of the proposed facility.
Jim Brown said he sat down with Gov. Brown and explained the timeline and high costs of construction. The blueprints for that piece of property would cost about $250,000 before even building, Jim Brown said. The long lease would allow the structure to be built in phases.
Jim Brown said the structure will first be built at 6,000 square feet as an initial structure. Once more funds are raised, the building will expand, he said.
“I am very appreciative that the governor had more information this time,” Brown said. “He’s a smart man, and with all the new information, he was going to sign it.”
The governor’s authorization doesn’t mean the museum will actually get built, however. The Old Guard Foundation and the museum committee are trying to raise $10 million through private donations and fundraisers within two years to meet a construction deadline set in the legislation, Brown said. So far, they have raised $60,000 from a small donation box in the museum and a few local businesses that support it.
Although Brown is hopeful for the project, he also thinks the new facility will not happen without the support of the community.
“This is just a dream, and it may never happen,” he said.
The current one-story museum was previously used as the main office for the Natoma Water and Mining Company. The structure was there before the prison and has the wear and tear to prove it. Chipped white paint and cracked bricks surround the entrance to the museum and its artifacts, such as a replica train used in early prison days, an old tower and a hitching post.
Brown has been the volunteer operations manager at the museum since 1999. He said the new facility is needed so larger artifacts, such as a 1953 International firetruck that serviced the prison and an old 1919 Republic truck turned into a paddy wagon, can be displayed.
Currently, the facility showcases historic artifacts such as prison guard guns, an 8-foot Ferris wheel made out of 250,000 toothpicks and other confiscated inmate creations such as handmade knives.
About 10,000 guests from all over the world visit the museum every year, Brown said. Johnny Cash visited the prison in 1968 and performed “Folsom Prison Blues,” an event that has made the site a popular destination, he added.
Brown said he believes the expanded facility is necessary to tell stories about inmates and correctional officers and to inform the public that prisoners can become responsible citizens again. For example, all license plates for the state of California are made at Folsom State Prison. Prisoners do jobs others won’t, such as cleaning up trash and weeds from cemeteries and parks, and working on the bicycle trail surrounding Folsom State Prison.
“Anytime you can improve on their behavior and their mental state is a good thing,” Brown said. “Maybe they will get out and stay out.”
Brown, 69, has been working on the museum project for 20 years. He is determined to see it completed. “I’m going to see this new museum get built,” he said.
The museum is seeking volunteers to help run the museum and donations of funds and artifacts for the new facility. For more information, visit folsomprisonmuseum.org.