Some drummers and musicians communicate through the most finely crafted instruments of their day. For the prisoner it is typically the sound of a metal desk or bunk diversified by the slap, the fist, the click-clack of a plastic coffee mug. But it doesn’t have to be only the primitive beat, as a rising program aims to get fine instruments into the darkest corners of our penal system.
Jail Guitar Doors, USA is a foundation dedicated to bringing musical instruments into prisons, and has had success from Sing Sing in New York to facilities in Texas and Southern California. The organization’s founder, Wayne Kramer, got the idea from the success of his friend Billy Bragg, a rock legend doing similar work in the U.K. Bragg named the effort after a 1978 Clash song of the same name, with lyrics about a guy named “Wayne” going to prison for involvement with drugs. That would be the same Wayne Kramer, guitarist for the storied Detroit punk band MC5.
“Music and songwriting is a way to process your problems in a way that is internal,” Kramer told PLN in a recent interview. “It’s a way to begin seeing yourself as an artist, as someone who can contribute something to the world, and can ignite someone to have a change of heart.” Kramer sees music as one vocabulary, but ultimately people need to be able to express their ideas as a non-musician, as a human being.
Prison is a place where many people write their first lyrics, whether for self-expression or entertainment of others. A beat gives it depth and vibrancy, while guitar strings offer rhythm. Music goes by many names, in many forms, and years of stripped-to-the-bone prison lyrics can hone an intellect, capture emotions and help make sense of one’s surroundings. Whether it’s a rap battle, music room, crooner in the shower or a church band, some form of music happens in every prison. The best of these environments can be summed up by a British warden (and supporter of Jail Guitar Doors) who said, “Once we had guitars, everything changed.”
One powerful example of Jail Guitar Doors comes through Wayne’s experience in Nevada, where he received a request for new instruments for a prison program. The warden set up a special concert in the yard with bleachers, eight bands and 350 people.
The styles ranged from Tejano, R&B and Christian Metal to Punk and Gospel. The bands’ diversity broke down traditional walls of segregation. Black, white, Chicano, young and old came together as people sat in on other bands and set a strong example for building a positive community.
In California, home to nearly 10% of the nation’s prisoners, state officials studied their Arts In Corrections programming and found that participants had fewer disciplinary problems while inside and fewer returns to prison once released. What studies often cannot show is just what “success” looks like: the peace of mind and sense of purpose that accompanies someone who is managing their difficult situation. One former auto mechanic learned to build and play guitars while in prison. Now, not only is his primary identity as an “artist,” but his children also learned to play guitar; music was their primary touchstone through the prison years, rather than all the negative aspects of incarceration.
These are the turning points in people’s lives that create a new cultural norm.
The American prison system is currently the number one service provider for people with mental illnesses, and corrections officials have been increasingly vocal about their inability to properly handle that population in a rehabilitative way. “Art therapy,”
however, has long been a mode of engaging those with developmental disabilities, and history is filled with great artists who were otherwise dysfunctional. The musical arts, and Jail Guitar Doors, are methods to generate growth and meaning among the most disenfranchised, potentially saving them from “losing it,” hurting themselves or others, and ultimately never being released.
Jail Guitar Doors provides a clear path to developing and embracing the humanity of people who are incarcerated, and perhaps more importantly, developing the humanity among those not incarcerated in terms of the way they view prisoners and former prisoners. Expression builds understanding, and this ultimately builds a community.
To contact Jail Guitar Doors, USA about providing instruments to prisons, write or email:
Jail Guitar Doors
842 North Fairfax
Los Angeles, CA 90046
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