Johnny Cash died nearly ten years ago (the exact anniversary is September 12). I knew a little about his music – for instance his reinterpretation on Trent Reznor’s song ‘Hurt’ is achingly intense http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmVAWKfJ4Go
Despite my interest in the criminal justice system I did not know about the role Johnny Cash took in US prison reform. The BBC has filled in the blanks, in recent coverage of his activism from the 1950s onwards.
Apparently he used his growing profile as a musician from the late 1950s to draw attention to the unnecessary harshness of the penal system. His faith-based view was that prisoners could be redeemed. Speaking about Johnny’s prison work his brother Tommy says:
“He identified with the prisoners because many of them had served their sentences and had been rehabilitated in some cases, but were still kept there the rest of their lives. He felt a great empathy with those people”.
Seemingly the US recidivism rate means more than four out of ten offenders return to prison within four years. As I posted on 24 November last year (see Inside Out) in the UK six out of ten offenders return to crime within nine years.
There was an interesting radio documentary recently about faith-based interventions to help disaffected youth, and people on the margins of society, linked to David Wilkerson’s work as a street pastor. The book ‘The Cross and the Switchblade’ says more about how that got started.
In the final analysis, maybe the UK needs more community outreach towards people on the margins. Perhaps it also needs an advocate with the persistence and credibility of Johnny Cash to start the conversation about the potential for the criminal justice system to change peoples’ lives?