Sign of California State Prison, San Quentin

Johnny Cash in San Quentin — 5 November 2017

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Michael Darlow began his talk to a large and attentive audience with these words of Dostoevsky, and immediately we were made aware of the strong moral sense which underpins so much of Michael’s work.

Johnny Cash had already given concerts in several US prisons, including San Quentin, when Michael was commissioned by Granada in 1969 to make his now-famous film. He prepared the ground by flying out to California, first to get agreement from the governor, and then to meet the leaders of the 10 main prison gangs. They agreed to guarantee the safety of Michael and his crew – in return for ring-side seats at the performance. The deal was very necessary in this most notorious and violent of prisons, with 3,000 inmates.

We watched several excerpts from the film, including the song specially written for that concert which expresses the hatred of the prisoner for the jail – “San Quentin you’ve been livin’ hell to me.” The fervent and raucous response to this looked terrifying, and the guards said that, had a riot broken out, they could not have stopped it.

The concert excerpts were inter-cut with film of the prison and interviews with individual prisoners. San Quentin has the largest death-row in any US prison and a description of the use of the gas-chamber by one of the officers was both disturbing and – in its matter-of-fact delivery – quite unnerving.

The abolition of the death penalty in the UK had only happened four years previously, and Michael and his team were determined that British viewers should make this connection. So it was that, when Granada insisted on taking out the section on the gas-chamber, Michael and others refused to let their names be on the credits of the film. In fact, part of the sequence was left in the final edit and remains as a powerful witness to the inhumanity of capital punishment.

At the end of a most thought-provoking and disturbing evening, one could not help but consider what Guantanamo Bay says about, in Dostoevsky’s words “the degree of civilisation” in the US today.

Megan Jones