San Quentin (Habakkuk 1)

This week we continue with prison songs in Richard Beck’s book Trains, Jesus, and Murder – The Gospel According to Johnny Cash. Please read chapter 5, Greystone Chapel, and chapter 6, San Quentin.


The second song we are looking at this week is “San Quentin.” San Quentin is California’s oldest prison and is located just north of San Francisco. Part of the prison houses California’s death row for condemned inmates. Johnny Cash’s first prison concert was at San Quentin in 1958 (where a twenty year old Merle Haggard was in attendance). Cash had a great understanding of the prison and the men kept there. If you want to go in-depth as to the problems at San Quentin during this time period, HERE is a 1976 documentary from WBUR (PBS Boston).

Live at San Quentin, was recorded in 1969, and was Johnny Cash’s follow-up album to “Live at Folsom Prison.” Although the two title tracts are both told from the perspective of a prisoner, these are very different songs. As we looked at last week, “Folsom Prison Blues” is a song of regret and yearning to be free. On the other hand, San Quentin is a song of unrestrained anger directed at the inhumanity of the prison system. It is, as Beck writes, a song of both prophetic rebuke and lament.


Johnny Cash wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” based upon a documentary he saw while in the Air Force. He imagined what an imprisoned convict would be thinking. On the other hand, Cash wrote “San Quentin” based upon his own personal experience in visiting the prison and its occupants. The song is based on what he knew the imprisoned convicts actually thought.

When you read the lyrics to “San Quentin” (below), they should remind you of the invectives and denunciations of the Old Testament prophets. The prophet’s role was to proclaim the plight of the marginalized that good and polite society either ignored or exploited. In proclaiming his message, the prophet lacked subtlety and used very direct and immoderate language. In speech and action, the prophet channeled the very anger of God towards this indifference and exploitation. If you read Ezekiel 16, Joel 2, or Amos 5 you will hear the same voice that Johnny Cash channels.

Cash plays the role of the prophet. He sings about the dehumanization, brutality, and ultimate ineffectiveness of San Quentin Prison. His hatred for the institution pervades the entire song. Cash knows that he is singing for those who have no voice for the injustices that they face.

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell,
May your walls fall and may I live to tell,
May all the world forget you ever stood,
And the whole world will regret you did no good.

On the album, Cash sings “San Quentin” twice in a row. At the end of the first recording, you can hear the affirmation from the audience that Cash understands their circumstances. In the second recording, you can almost hear a riot begin. This is what solidarity sounds like. (As an aside, Cash’s iconic photograph of him giving the middle finger was taken during this concert.)

In being the prophetic voice, Cash gives us an example to follow. He had seen the injustice in the prison system and spoke out against it. Cash not only gave prisoners a voice in his songs, but he also worked for prison reform and testified before Congress on the issue. Silence in the face of injustice is complicity. Cash was not silent, and neither is our calling.


“San Quentin” is also a song of lament. The PBS documentary on San Quentin ends with a former warden and a current inmate both saying that nothing will ever change. Cash’s song not only prophetically calls forth the injustice of the prison system, but it laments there is no end to the injustice there. The song cries out for justice without the expectation that any will come.

Beck has a wonderful discussion on the place of lament within our Christian witness. There are times when we lament, we question, we doubt, and we get angry at God for his (perceived) absence. Particularly in the Psalms we see lament and crying out because of God’s failure to act in the face of injustice.

As Beck point out, lament is not a sign of a lack of faith but a sign of a bold trusting faith amid pain, suffering, and confusion. Lament is also an honest expression of our faith because injustice in a fallen world will always remain. Finally, lament is a sign of a faith of solidarity with the least of these. Lament is the cry of those that are being oppressed and marginalized and lamenting with them amplifies their voice for justice.


In 1969, when Johnny Cash recorded his album at San Quentin, the prison population in the United States stood at approximately 190,000 with an incarceration rate of approximately 100 inmates per 100,000 people in the general population. Today, the United States prison population is approximately 1.4 million (with a total incarcerated population of almost 2.2 million). The incarceration rate is 655 inmates per 100,000 people in the general population. The United States imprisons more people both in raw numbers and in percentage of population that any other country in the world. An American male has a 1 in 9 chance of being incarcerated at sometime during his life. If he is black the percentage triples to 1 in 3. The problems Cash sang about are still around but have only increased due to overcrowding. Despite Cash’s plea, San Quentin still stands tall.


Of all the marginalized groups in society, prisoners may be the least sympathetic. Most inmates are there because they performed an intentional act, and most people simply feel safer knowing that the “bad guys” are locked away. However, most prisoners will re-renter society. And, of course, everyone in prison still bears the image of God and retains their God-given dignity. If you want to be involved or support prison ministries two great resources are Prison Fellowship (founded by Chuck Colson) or Kairos Prison Ministry. Kim Perl is also exploring ways to be involved at J. Rueben Long Detention Center.

Prison reform is not a new thing. Alexis de Tocqueville ostensible reason for coming to America is 1831 was to review America’s recent prison reforms. Today, there are numerous secular groups that are involved in prison reform from the ACLU to the Koch Institute and other groups. Prison reform is also back on the legislative agenda from deep-red South Carolina to bright-blue New Jersey. We can hope that these and other reforms can somehow address the issues Cash raised 50 years ago.

San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me
You’ve blistered me since 1963
I’ve seen them come and go and I’ve seen them die
And long ago I stopped asking why

San Quentin, I hate every inch of you
You’ve cut me and you’ve scarred me through and through
And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man
Mr. Congressman, you can’t understand

San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through?
You bend my heart and mind, and you warp my soul
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell
May your walls fall and may I live to tell
May all the world forget you ever stood
And the whole world will regret you did no good

San Quentin, I hate every inch of you

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and thou wilt not hear?
Or cry to thee “Violence!”
    and thou wilt not save?
Why dost thou make me see wrongs
    and look upon trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law is slacked
    and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous,
    so justice goes forth perverted.
Habakkuk 1:2-4

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