Criminal Justice Chronicle: C is for Colson & Cash

What do Charles Colson and Johnny Cash have in common? Richard Nixon, incarceration and criminal justice reform.

Charles Colson: “The Evil Genius”

Charles Colson went to federal prison for his role in the Watergate scandal. He was one of Richard Nixon’s closest and most trusted advisers; Nixon admired and appreciated Colson’s “skills” and ruthlessness, his “instinct for the political jugular” and his “imaginative dirty tricks”. But by the time he got to prison, Colson had experienced a spiritual awakening, and considered himself born again. He brought his new-found religion to his fellow inmates, and once released, he established the Prison Fellowship Ministries. He criticized the prison system in the US as “lock ‘em and leave ‘em”, and he devoted himself to Bible-based criminal justice and prison reform for the rest of his life.

Colson’s religious beliefs aligned him with ultra-conservative, evangelical groups who were anti-choice, anti-evolution and pro-school prayer, but his Prison Fellowship continues to advocate for criminal justice reform and to offer support for inmates and their families around the world.

Johnny Cash: “The Man in Black”

Johnny Cash always had an affinity for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the sick, the lonely and the poor. His identity as “The Man in Black” grew from this affinity: he said he wore black on behalf of “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime” and “in mourning for the lives that could have been” referring to soldiers killed in Viet Nam. He didn’t change his black coat after the war, saying: “The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor … and we’re not making many moves to make things right.”

Two of Johnny Cash’s most famous albums – At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969) – were recorded live at concerts for the inmates at those institutions. You can listen to a clip from San Quention HERE.

In 1972 – while Charles Colson was still at the White House – Cash visited President Richard Nixon, intent on discussing prison reform. When Nixon asked him to sing a few songs, he declined to sing what was requested, which were songs that expressed disdain for war protestors and the poor who “cheat” the system; instead he sang songs of protest, including “The Man in Black”.

When Cash testified at a Senate committee on prisons, he shared that he himself had spent a night or two in county and city jails. His view: “A first offender needs to know that somebody cares for him and that he is given a fair shake. The purpose behind prison reform should be to have less crime. The prisoner has to be treated like a human being. If he isn’t, when he gets out, he won’t act like one”.


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