San Quentin Lyrics - Johnny Cash

Review The Song (4)

San Quentin, you've been livin' hell to me
You've hosted me since nineteen sixty three
I've seen 'em come and go and I've seen 'em die
And long ago I stopped askin' why

San Quentin, I hate every inch of you.
You've cut me and you've scarred me thru an' thru.
And I'll walk out a wiser, weaker man;
Mister Congressman, why can't you understand?

San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think that 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 regret you did no good.

San Quentin, you've been living hell to me.

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Missing the Point | Reviewer: Thomas | 6/17/13

A few persons may be serving a sentence for a crime they did not commit. However, if Cash was speaking on behalf of the majority in San Quentin, it's obvious that they did not repent of their error, consequently blaming the prison system for their plight. This fact also shows up in that a very large proportion of them will come out & repeat their crime. (Some have served several sentences for rape, murder etc) Perhaps the prisons should do more to help these people to understand the gravity of what they did. Examples of others leading a happy life without being a criminal are not impossible to find.

"fool" still doesn't understand | Reviewer: Illanoid | 6/13/12

Regarding reviewer called "fool",
Cash wrote in the song I am The Man in Black "I wear it[black] for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime, But is there because he's a victim of the times." This is the sentiment he captures in this song. Cash was singing to the low man, as a low man; addict, inconsistent father/husband, a man with regrets. In all likelihood he related to people in prison because he understood the reality of life, bitter and sweet.

You sound like a person who has never been incarcerated, and seem to think that everyone who is prison deserves to be there. That would be the case if the legal system functioned without bias(race, wealth, sexuality,etc.), which it does not, and that all people have a fair shot in the US, which they do not. Some people grow up without roll models, surrounded by poverty. If you have ever had a baby to feed and house, and been unable to find work(though honestly trying your best) you might find yourself doing things you would not be proud of.

On recidivism, the US prison system is intentionally dehumanizing. Assigning numbers, regular strip searches, no ability to control ones environment, isolation(as far as 23hrs alone in a cell, for years on end), etc. These are the same tactics used to breakdown a persons psyche in interrogations (like at Guantanamo Bay). When you breakdown a person that has no one to talk to, would you be surprised to end up with a severely damaged person? Now, take this damaged person and put them back on the street with little assistance. If you went to a state prison you'll likely get a parole officer with hundreds of parolees to supervise, and, if you are lucky, a public mental health professional, also with hundreds of clients. If you went to a Federal Prison, or served all your sentence, you don't even get these. Add to this that the only jobs ex-convicts get are jobs most people don't want. Poorly paid, no chance for advancement, and subject to the whims of an employer who can threaten to call your parole officer if you assert your labor rights(minimum wage, overtime, etc.). People don't go back to prison multiple times because they like it, they simply cannot escape the system. Further, a lot of people who are counted as "recidivist" are people sent back to prison for parole violations. Things that are not illegal for everyone else, such alcohol consumption, failing to have a job, failing to have a permanent address, etc.).
As for your false dichotomy of current Us policy or "historic" policies; i choose neither. Your examples appear to be from antiquity, as i haven't heard of anyone being "banished for life" from any western country in this century. How about we compare current US prison system with contemporary prison systems. The US is the last country in western society to have the death penalty, which is horrible no matter how it is conducted. The US incarcerates the highest percentage of its population in history. Stalin's Soviet Union, Pol Pot's Cambodia, name a country and time, and the US has a higher percentage of it's population in prison. The US has more people in prison than China, which has over three times the population of the US. Most people in prison are in prison for non-violent drug offenses.
Returning to the West, most European countries have shorter sentences and offer better treatment for prisoners. As a result European ex-convicts have less psychological baggage leaving prisons, and are better reabsorbed into society. European opinion polls show that Europeans are far more likely than Americans to accept that a person who was once in prison deserves full rights and equal treatment because they have served their time and paid their debt. Further, European prison systems are designed with the reality that 98% of people who go to prison get out at some time(also true in US), and therefore try to make prisoners better citizens. The US system is designed to punish people, and your attitude about "a lenient society" echos the common American ethos: prisoners get what they deserve.

In conclusion, I think that Johnny Cash was pointing to the social failure that is the US prison system. I think he would choose to treat prisoners with dignity, offer treatment for addiction and mental health issues, and try to help them be better humans. I think he pitied those who obviously need help to live a successful life. I hope that someday you will pity these humans as well, and be your brother's keeper.

Huh? | Reviewer: Nick | 1/24/09

I think the other reviewer is missing the point!

Let's get you into that prison and see how much you like the lyrics after that!

I just heard today that in the good ol' "lenient" U.S.A. we currently incarcerate 1 out of every 100 adults.

I'm all for locking up violent offenders but something stinks in the massive growth of the private prison industry, and a lot of the folks locked up behind those "stone walls" lay heavy on my conscience every day I have my freedom.

If you can't get behind this belief about the underlying systemic problems with the prison system then seriously, why are you listening to Johnny Cash?

Never Understood | Reviewer: fool | 10/15/08

I loved this song when I was a kid, listening to it on the eight-track player in my Dad's 1968 Olds Toronado as we cruised down the highway. At the time - I was about ten years old - the lyrics didn't really register. I knew that he was at a prison, San Quentin in California, and so of course the men who were there wouldn't like it.

But when I was older, and thought of the song (as now; it just came up in rotation on my iPod while here at work), I considered that the lyrics made no sense, except from the point of view of a criminal who never wants to face the consequences of his wrongdoing.

"What good do you think you do?" Well, San Quentin, old friend, you keep the crooks from continuing to harry and molest innocent victims. That's a worthwhile thing. "Do you think that I'll be different when you're through?" That depends on the man, of course. Many prisoners have been rehabilitated; many more have come out and resumed their lives of crime, and gone right back in - those who weren't killed in the act, at least.

"The whole world regret you did no good?" My only regret is that criminals still seem to get off with light sentences, and that the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by repeat-offenders and those on parole.

If "the prison does no good," then what alternative would Mr. Cash - or the hypothetical speaker of the words of his song - do instead?

Ours is a very lenient society, relatively speaking, in comparison with most of human history. Execution - often by horrible means - and maiming, and life incarceration, and lifetime banishment are just some of the alternatives to the prison system we've developed in Western culture.

Which would Mr. Cash's protagonist prefer?

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