Reviews | Tom Morello: Bringing freedom agreements behind bars

We were backstage in New York City on “The Justice Tour,” a charity / activist trip I organized in 2009, in which artists performed a concert to benefit a particular cause in a city and then participated in the next day at work.

Wayne Kramer, guitarist of legendary punk pioneers, MC5, asked British left-wing troubadour Billy Bragg how he got his acoustic guitar to sound so good.

Billy pulls out his acoustic, which features a sticker that says “Jail Guitar Doors”. Wayne asks, “What is this?” Billy explains that this is the name of an initiative he founded in England that supplies guitars to prisons as rehabilitation tools. He said the name of the organization comes from a song by The Clash.

Pause. Then Wayne whispers, “Uh, yeah. This song was written on me. ”

“Prison Guitar Doors” by shock

Wayne spent two and a half years in prison on a drug charge, an experience he describes as emasculating, dehumanizing and deeply damaging.

Luckily our concert the next day was at Sing Sing Prison, up the Hudson River from New York. Wayne and Billy continued to talk during the bus ride, while the rest of us dozed off, unaware that a Saul moment on the road to Damascus was about to take place.

Sing Sing seems straight out of “The Shawshank Redemption”, a Gothic fortress housing hundreds of inmates. As we crossed the threshold, members of our group with irregular legal backgrounds wondered aloud if they were going to let us out.

We played for about an hour with Perry Farrell on the classic Jane’s Addiction “Mountain songBoots Riley and I dropped twisted phrases and crooked guitar hits on ‘Ghetto Blaster,’ then as nervous looks were exchanged between the guards, Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains brought down the house with a incendiary cover of Thin Lizzy “Jailbreak. ”

And then Brother Wayne Kramer walked over to the microphone.

Now, I’ve known Wayne for a long time. He’s a great guy, nice and wise. But as he addressed the Sing Sing inmates, he was a transformed man. Its vernacular has changed. He spoke to the inmates as one of them. Honest and raw. He spoke of his life on the streets and his time behind bars and, with increasing zeal, preached the redemptive power of art and music. The inmates and the other musicians were delighted.

Then the inmates expressed their gratitude. But we too have been profoundly changed. As one musician said to Wayne, “I thought the people in jail were like another species. I never realized that these are just guys like me.

Then we left to go home, and they left to go back to their cages. On the return bus ride, Wayne Kramer decided to launch Jail Guitar Doors USA.

There are about two million people behind bars in America, 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. No fewer than 300,000 human beings are currently in solitary confinement and over 50,000 are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. The largest mental health facilities in the world are now the prisons and prisons of this country. People of color are incarcerated crudely and disproportionately. The American prison system is a hellish purgatory that is the cornerstone of a larger justice system that is racist and classist in its essence. I have listed some of these injustices in Hard times, “ The Rabbit’s Revenge and Lead poisoning. “

Wayne Kramer and his wife, Margret, and a small team worked tirelessly to persuade the guards to let them into the jails to perform and preach the rock n roll gospel. They met resistance, but they persevered. Let us show you that it works, they said. And they did.

I went with Wayne on one of those missions, to the Travis County Correctional Complex near Austin, Texas. After a fiery The flesh shapes the day and Expel jams and of course Prison guitar doors, the administrators authorized a fledgling musical program using the guitars we left behind. Prison staff noted that there was less violence and a marked decrease in tensions in the yard.

Today Jail Guitar Doors USA has programs in 11 prisons, with instruments of all types in more than 200 institutions around the world. Wayne has traveled the country creating songwriting workshops that demonstrate the transformative power of making creative connections every day.

Inmates of all kinds have flocked to the program, and they don’t have to be musicians. As long as they have a voice and a story, there is a place for them at the table. Jail Guitar Doors helps inmates communicate their feelings in a non-confrontational way and demonstrate a different and dynamic way through music to relate to other people who may not be from your neighborhood or ethnicity. .

The music provides insight into her own behavior and thinking, important tools for her return to the community – restorative justice that is a powerful counterbalance to pervasive racism, violence, bitterness and defeat.

When you put your pain into a song, it goes away. You don’t have to wear it anymore. It gives you something to focus on besides your resentments. When asked to write about a theme, inmates begin to identify with each other as fathers, rappers, guitarists, or just brothers who share common hopes for themselves. The barriers between hostile groups and gangs are starting to be broken down.

Jail Guitar Doors, in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, recently established the Community Arts Programming and Outreach (CAPO) Center to continue community work for at-risk youth and for those released from prison.

Wayne says this is all just a favor. It seems to me that the example he gives is even more than that. As you apply your beliefs to your calling, weaving what you believe into what you do, the sky is the limit.

At the Jail Guitar Doors sessions, there are no inmates, only artists. A place for their stories to be heard, a place to be treated with dignity and respect. A jailbreak.

Previous essays in this series can be found here.

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