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Plans for new 'Big House' museum

04/30/2013, 12:00am PDT
By Jan Ferris Heenan

Former Folsom Prison guard has big plans for new 'Big House' museum

Jim Brown was fresh out of the U.S. Army the first time the heavy metal gates of Folsom Prison slammed shut behind him.

Far from foreboding, the clanging sound struck his fancy, as did the thick granite mystique of California's second-oldest prison.

The place, he said, had personality.

Brown would clock 32 years there as a guard. He worked the watch- towers, his rifle at the ready. He walked the cellblocks, on the hunt for weapons and other contraband. For nearly half his tenure, he stood guard in the prison's psychiatric ward, protecting the medical staff and defusing tensions among un- predictable criminals.

"People (working at Folsom) always say, 'Well, I'm not scared,' " he said. "Well, you're a fool, then. That's how you get in trouble. Everybody in here can hurt you. You just have to be on your toes."

A gregarious, white-haired man of substantial size, Brown turns 67 next month. He retired from the prison 11 years ago, but he's never really left. He has written two histories of the institution and serves as the Folsom Prison Museum's operations manager.

It's a volunteer post, but Brown works it like a job, spending approximately 50 hours a week in the museum's cramped quarters, an old two-story house built by the mining company that formerly owned the prison land. There, he manages a multi- farious collection of historic photos and objects.

In recent months, Brown has devoted himself to an even more ambitious effort, one with a $16 million price tag: a proposal to build a 35,000-square-foot museum at Folsom Prison devoted to the field of correctional science.

"It's not so much this place; it's this profession, and we want to preserve a lot of the history," he explained. "A lot of people, what they know they see on TV. They portray us as knuckle-dragging gorillas."

Known as the Big House Prison Museum, it would highlight the history of corrections, honor the men and women of the profession and help dispel negative stereotypes.

"This new museum's going to be spectacular," Brown said. "I pray that I live long enough to see it built."

Brown will admit that he had a few reservations about prison work at first. From the time the Oakland native was in high school, he was interested in law enforcement. He chose the Army over the Marine Corps because he was promised a job as a combat military policeman.

He served in Korea during the Vietnam War, then returned to Sacramento and began working for a caterer.

A friend suggested he take the test to work at Folsom, but he had his sights set on more conventional types of police jobs.

"I told him 'I don't want to be no stinking prison guard.' The next thing you know … " said Brown, punctuating his plain-spoken patter with a vigorous laugh.

Brown was first posted to the guard tower closest to the American River. He worked the overnight shift, usually with little action, and was pleased a few months later to be transferred to "One Building," known as the largest prison cellblock in the country. He had a healthy amount of fear and kept his wits about him.

Danger invariably called. Brown said an inmate stabbed him. Another time, a psychiatric patient lying on his back grabbed the guard, hoisted him in the air and required sedation before he'd loosen his hold.

But Brown had an approachable style with the prisoners, said former co-worker Dennis Sexton, and it often proved useful. The two worked together when he was a watch commander and Brown was his sergeant.

One time an inmate was cutting himself with a razor. Sexton knew instantly who to bring in.

"Jimmy is crazy in a good way," he said. "He could deal with nuts. There's nobody I trust more in the penitentiary than him."

The two men still work closely together. Sexton is Brown's deputy at the museum and president of the Old Guard Foundation. They road-tripped to Oregon recently to bring back a 1919 police van for the museum and have spent hours restoring it.

Sexton may get to the office earlier than his old friend most days, but Brown stays long into the evenings or takes work home with him.

"Jimmy is the single most important person for this museum at this time," Sexton said. "He runs everything here."

Brown became the resident expert on Folsom prison history by asking questions about it from his first day on the job.

At his orientation, for instance, he inquired about some concrete patchwork on the floor in "Five Building," which was part of the original 1880 construction. It turns out the concrete filled a trench where inmates once emptied slop buckets. According to Brown, the contents would drain into the nearby river.

Brown took to carrying a small notebook in his pocket and would pull it out when talking to convicts or longtime prison staff members. A few years before he retired, he began researching and writing short histories of the prison for a former colleague, the late John Fratis Jr., who founded the Folsom Prison Museum in the 1990s.

The museum's current exhibit space is dinky: three tiny rooms on the first floor, each chockablock with mementos, including an 8-foot Ferris wheel that a convicted burglar made from approximately 250,000 toothpicks.

Other displays include heavy iron restraints, dozens of handmade knives confiscated from inmates over the years and a glass case of items the most resourceful prisoners hid on their bodies; Brown calls them "keister-stashers."

His own two books – "Folsom Prison (Images of America: California)" and "130 Years of the Folsom Prison Legend: 1880-2010" are for sale along with several other titles.

The archives are up a steep flight of stairs in a small, fluorescent-lit room that's used for meetings and storage. Professional historians might wince at the sight: tall metal bookcases teem with mug shot albums and prison ledgers dating from the 1870s; original inmate craftwork leans up against the shelves.

Larger items such as cell doors, an original prison firetruck and a few original headstones from the small prison cemetery are kept in storage elsewhere for now, Brown said.

Nearly 10,000 people a year visit the museum. Many are Johnny Cash fans, particularly the tourists from overseas who come to see where the Man in Black performed. (Cash played at the prison three times in the 1960s, Brown notes, though many people only know the concert he gave for his live "At Folsom Prison" album.)

A larger building is clearly in order, Brown and his volunteers agree. The Correctional Peace Officers Foundation is leading the effort with a 20-member steering committee of former wardens, representatives from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Old Guard Foundation and others.

State corrections officials have tentatively agreed to lease several acres along Folsom's Prison Road not far from the penitentiary, department spokesman Bill Sessa confirmed.

The Big House Prison Museum is intended to showcase the profession in a larger context. Several facilities around the country have promised artifacts, Brown said. Vanir Construction Management has drawn up plans free of charge; the proposed design features replicas of the towers of Folsom Prison as well as the Attica Correctional Facility in New York and the shuttered Joliet Prison in Illinois.

For the moment, a small donations jar at the museum's front desk is the main fundraising tool, though a volunteer is writing grants, Brown said.

The group has raised $3,000 so far, but the long road ahead does not dispirit Brown. Though the project's coffers are hardly full, he predicts groundbreaking will take place in two years.

"You've got to have it in your heart," he said. "You have to want to see this preserved."

Only once the new museum opens its doors – Brown doesn't deal in "ifs" on this – will he consider taking time off, he said. He has a wife, children and 11 grandkids he'd like to spend time with, and a great-grandson on the way. The mom-to-be called Grandpa recently to tell him that a name had been selected for his first great-grandchild: Cash.



Where: 312 Third St., Represa

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily (closed New Year's Day, Thanks-giving and Christmas)

Cost: $2 (free for kids under 12)

Information: (916) 985-2561, ext. 4589;

Big House Prison Museum project


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