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I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 16 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

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—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

by Peter Wagner, December 22, 2005

Frames from Walk the Line showing prisoners stomping their feet along with the music. Note that the men aren't allowed to have shoelaces.

Frames from the Johnny Cash biopic. Note the missing shoelaces.

There is a new movie about Johnny Cash in the theatres now, Walk the Line. The trailer explains the importance of the film better than I can here, so I’ll let the trailer and the frames on the right of prisoners stomping their feet for Johnny Cash speak for themselves about the film.

This is as good a time as any to revisit our last article about Johnny Cash. When he died in 2003, we replaced the front page of this website with an obituary that highlighted what we then thought were two of his least known and most important songs, Man in Black and San Quentin.

Since then, we’ve discovered something rarer and even more important: Jacob Green. The song was first performed at a Swedish prison and released on the 1974 LP “Pa Osteraker” (Inside a Swedish Prison). In the U.S., the only place we know of to hear or see this song is in the recording of a 1976 concert at the Tennessee State Prison, A Concert Behind Prison Walls.

From that recording, here are the lyrics to Jacob Green:

Jacob Green

I’ve learned one thing, that when a man is at rock bottom, when there is no place else he can go except up, that the only thing that is really important in the world to him is that somebody, somewhere cares. And with that in mind, I wrote this song about something that really happened to a 16 year old boy in the state of Virginia. It’s called Jacob Green.

Jacob Green got busted for possession
next morning early he appeared in court
But he was sent to jail to wait
to be tried at some later date
Next morning early, there came a sad report
At the jail they took away his clothes to shame him
and to make sure Jacob Green had no pride left
They cut of all his hair
Today they found him hanging there
afraid to face the day he killed himself

It happened yesterday, and if you turn your head away
Somewhere in some dirty hole the scene will be rerun
Not only Jacob Green, but many more you’ve never seen
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done

Jacobs father hired a team of lawyers
inspections and long inquiries were held
The sheriff then retired
and the papers said two guards were fired
They put a brand new coat of paint on Jacob’s cell
But like a tomb that looks so white and shiny
inside you’ll find corruption never seen
And somewhere out there tonight
In a dirty cell without a light
There will be locked up another Jacob Green

It happened yesterday, and if you turn your head away
Somewhere in some dirty hole the scene will be rerun
Not only Jacob Green, but many more you’ve never seen
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done
It could be someone that you love gets done
like Jacob Green got done

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