Jail Guitar Doors
“The arts, and music in particular, is the one thing we know will reach people on a deep fundamental level to change hearts and minds,” explains Wayne Kramer, former guitarist for the now-legendary Detroit-based seminal hard rock band The MC5 and co-founder of Jail Guitar Doors USA, a nonprofit program that provides musical instruments and opportunities to help rehabilitate prisoners.
In 1978, The Clash released the song, “Jail Guitar Doors.” It tells the story of the imprisonment of Kramer, who spent two years in a federal penitentiary in Lexington, Kentucky. In 2007, to honor the life of Clash founder Joe Strummer, singer songwriter Billy Bragg launched an initiative in England providing musical equipment to help rehabilitate inmates serving time in Her Majesty’s Prisons in the United Kingdom. His initiative was named for that very same song, “Jail Guitar Doors.” In 2009, Kramer partnered with Bragg to found Jail Guitar Doors USA.
In a nutshell, Kramer believes providing prisoners with the musical tools to create songs of their own can achieve a positive change of attitude, which can then initiate the work necessary to successfully return to life outside prison walls. His views are based on his own firsthand experience, both as a musician and a prisoner.
“Creating music, along with other educational and vocational programs, can be a profound force for positive change in a prisoner’s life,” he explains. “Our goal is to aid the ‘correctional’ aspect of corrections that can only come from a regenerated belief in one’s future as a positive, contributing member of society.”
How Jail Guitar Doors interfaces with prisons varies across the whole spectrum of American punishment. “In the state prisons there sometimes are music programs already up and rolling that we can augment by providing them with guitars,” he explains. “But more often, there are no programs and the guitars are the seed that can begin a program.” How instruments are provided can vary wildly depending on the facility and if people are allowed access to the guitars all the time.
Though the program is called Jail Guitar Doors, the emphasis really is on songwriting and self-expression, rather than learning an instrument per se. “I want to task people with telling their story in a song because, if you have to focus your thinking and focus your aspirations into a song, to sit and do the work of actually writing the thing out, that process is transformative,” he clarifies. “And I think it’s the first rung on the ladder in the hard work of rehabilitation and restoration—in looking inward and figuring out, ‘How the hell did I get here and what can I do to make sure I never come back to these places again?’”
In some facilities Kramer runs weekly songwriting workshops. “We have one that I’m running now in Los Angeles County Jail, in the Men’s Central Jail,” he says. “It’s the largest jail in the world. On any given day there are 18,000 to 20,000 people in the system. We meet every Tuesday night. We provide them with a dozen guitars and a few cajons. We break into groups and we write songs and we figure out how to talk to each other and how to treat each other with dignity and respect and how to have an open exchange of ideas.” Kramer says this process breaks down class differences, race differences, and gang affiliations—[the differences] all are shifted to the side in the realm of music. “It can be a model for bigger things,” he attests. “It’s the beginning of the process of changing.”
Kramer believes that American punishment, for the last 30 years, at its core, has been fundamentally retributive. “The clear goal is incapacitation,” he explains. “In other words, we warehouse human beings. But if you don’t incentivize people positively, then that same energy will be channeled transgressively. If you don’t do something to inspire them to change for the better, they will most definitely change for the worse.”
The end result, according to Kramer, is that we all end up living in a less safe world. “All these ‘get tough on crime’ laws that were sold to the American public ended up making us less safe,” he says. “We’re one group, among many around the country, who are really trying to mitigate the damage done by the greatest failure of social policy in America’s history.”
Kramer believes that arts in corrections programming is hugely important because it allows people a way to express themselves as human beings. “Because they are, in fact, human beings,” he affirms, “with the same hopes and fears and needs as everybody else. It’s my belief that the arts make life worth living, especially for people who are incarcerated. If you don’t make life worth living in a positive sense, then they will find reasons to make life worth living in a negative way.”
Though its focus is primarily on songwriting, Jail Guitar Doors does use guitars as the primary tool for teaching the craft. The organization acquires them by soliciting donations from the community at large. Or, they buy guitars at a very good rate. The Fender Corporation sells guitars to them at cost, for example.
Jail Guitar Doors has delivered guitars to more than 50 American prisons and they’ve got a waiting list of about 60 more. But the guitars aren’t gifts, says Kramer. “They are a challenge to use them as tools in a new nonconfrontational way of expression. Music is anger management. You can sit down with your guitar in a bad mood and bang on it for an hour and you feel better afterwards. It stills the waters.”