In “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash laments the hopelessness of being stuck in the titular penitentiary with no prospect of release, either from his jail cell or from his guilt.
Cash’s mother, in the song, told him “always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.” Cash didn’t listen and “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
Every day, he’d hear the train chugging by the prison, filled with people on their way “down to San Antone.” Their freedom was his existential pain: “Well I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free,” Cash sang. “But those people keep on moving, and that’s what tortures me.”
The atmosphere was a bit different at New Folsom State Prison recently — at least in the cell of Phillip Dorsett.
Dorsett would normally be in the same situation Cash’s character in “Folsom Prison Blues” found himself in; he shot a gang rival in the head at close range in 2005 and is currently serving 40 to life. There aren’t too many trains filled with people going down to ol’ San Antone these days, but Sacramento International Airport is a few miles to the west and there are connecting flights to San Antonio, although there aren’t very many people on them these days.
Here’s the thing, though: Thanks to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, Dorsett could be one of those flyers in the not-too-distant future.
According to Fox News, Dorsett has become the inadvertent face of a policy that could let any offender sentenced under prior administrations out after serving 15 years of their sentence. He caught wind of this and decided to have a little party in his cell to celebrate his potential freedom.
In the video, released Tuesday by the California District Attorneys Association, the convicted murderer and his cellmate are seen toasting glasses of prison moonshine known as “white lightning.”
“Right here with my cellie,” Dorsett said in the video as he made the toast.
“Some white lightning, a little cup, boom! Celebrating us going home on this Gascón directive. Whoop!”
While I’m guessing that’s not going to help his case for release, it’s also not going to help Gascón’s case for the potential resentencing and release of all “human beings charged, convicted and sentenced under prior District Attorneys’ policies.”
“Justice demands that the thousands of people currently serving prison terms imposed in Los Angeles County under earlier, outdated policies, are also entitled to the benefit of these new policies. Many of these people have been incarcerated for decades or are serving a ‘virtual life sentence’ designed to imprison them for life,” Gascón said in the December memo.
“The vast majority of incarcerated people are members of groups long disadvantaged under earlier systems of justice: Black people, people of color, young people, people who suffer from mental illness, and people who are poor. While resentencing alone cannot correct all inequities inherent in our system of justice, it should at least be consistent with policies designed to remedy those inequities.”
Saying that our country’s jail sentences are far too long, Gascón promised that his office “will reevaluate and consider for resentencing people who have already served 15 years in prison. Experts on post-conviction justice recommend that resentencing be allowed for all people (not just those convicted as children or as emerging adults) and some experts recommend an earlier date for reevaluating continued imprisonment. “
This sounds fantastic on paper, and then a Phillip Dorsett or three manages to get released.
“Recent footage of convicted murderer Phillip Dorsett celebrating George Gascón is compelling proof that violent criminals, not victims, will be the biggest beneficiaries of his radical policies,” said Greg Totten, chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association, according to Fox News.
“No one is celebrating George Gascón more than violent criminals.”
And it keeps getting better for criminals in Los Angeles County due to Gascón eliminating another directive that would add 10 to 20 years to any felony committed with a firearm.
“When criminals talk among themselves and share information that firearm enhancements are not going to be used, it’s no longer a deterrent,” CDAA President Vern Pierson said.
“People are increasingly using guns in the commission of violent crime. Gascón’s policies are reckless and dangerous to people of Los Angeles County and the people of California in a broader sense.”
According to the Los Angeles Daily News, Gascón’s office wasn’t available for comment. They were probably busy with the surge in violent crime as of late, which saw homicides rise to 349 in 2020 — “easily the worst figure in years,” the Register reported.
The only good thing to come out of this is that thanks to a very ill-advised video, Philip Dorsett is probably not going to get too much sympathy when he comes up for a sentencing reconsideration. The fact that he might have is disconcerting, however. Remember, if this video doesn’t exist, Dorsett could well have been making this toast on the outside, using liquor a bit more palatable than white lightning.
Johnny Cash had a dream, though: “Well if they freed me from this prison / If that railroad train was mine / I bet I’d move it on a little farther down the line /Far from Folsom prison, that’s where I want to stay / And I’d let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away.”
No matter what you did, though, no matter who you killed — even if it were just to watch them die — District Attorney Gascón could help you blow those blues away.
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