International Clash Day: Spotlight on Jail Guitar Doors

Community Engagement, International Clash Day
Kevin Cole

Because The Clash was anti-racist, anti-fear, pro-solidarity, pro-unity, pro-inclusion, KEXP is taking time to spotlight local social-justice organizations making a difference in our community. This is a public service announcement with GUITARS.

Today, we're spotlighting worldwide non-profit Jail Guitar Doors. Coming up in the late 1960s, the MC5 were groundbreaking in bringing punk to the American masses and setting the tone for a worldwide punk movement. The Clash were so influenced by the band that frontman Joe Strummer penned the song "Jail Guitar Doors" about MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who served two years in prison in the 1970s on a drug sentence. 

Decades later, Wayne Kramer joined forces with singer and activist Billy Bragg to launch the U.S. arm of Jail Guitar Doors, a non-profit organization that provides musical instruments and mentorship to help rehabilitate prisoners through the transformative power of music. Ahead of International Clash Day, KEXP's Kevin Cole talked with Wayne Kramer about his work with this impactful organization, as well as his thoughts on The Clash. 

KEXP: Wayne, what was your reaction when you first heard the song? 

Wayne Kramer: Well, I didn't hear about it until I came home from prison. Some of my friends asked me if I'd heard this song about me. I hadn't. And so I did a little research and was pleasantly surprised and grateful that some musicians that I didn't know from across the sea had decided to chronicle my bad behavior in a song. I consider it a great show of solidarity. And then I didn't think much else of it. 

At that point had you even heard of The Clash? 

I don't think I heard about them while I was in the penitentiary. The prison I was in was in the state of Kentucky, and punk rock music wasn't played on the commercial radio airwaves. That's all I could get and like the local college station. So, we didn't get exposed to any punk rock. I didn't really hear it until I came out in 1978. 

As a sidebar here, while in prison was that your musical connection? Listening to the college radio station that you could get? 

Well, not really. I brought my music with me. I was able to put together a prison band and perform regularly in the prison for my fellows and later on, I had the great good fortune of serving my time with the Red Rodney. Red was a jazz trumpeter who replaced Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker Quintet. He was an older and hipper musician and he took me under his wing and became my musical mentor and father. He taught me to read music and how to write and arrange on paper. 

As a result of that relationship did that serve you in terms of thinking about Jail Guitar Doors as an organization and some of the work that you do? 

Well, yeah, if we fast forward 30 plus years. I finally got so frustrated and angry with hyper-incarceration in America that I decided I had to do something. And what could I do? I can't overstate the importance of art and music in prison for me when I was serving my sentence. And so I knew it was a powerful transformative tool. And I thought, well, maybe I could do concerts in prisons. I wasn't really sure what form it could take. I knew I always enjoyed it when groups came from the outside and played for us in prison, so that was my first instinct. And I took a bunch of musicians into Sing Sing in New York, the infamous maximum security facility, and one of the musicians I took was Billy Bragg and he was telling me about this independent initiative he had started in England to provide guitars for prisoners as tools for rehabilitation. And I thought this was a brilliant idea and exactly what I was looking for. So later that day Billy Bragg, my wife Margaret Kramer, and I formed Jail Guitar Doors USA. That was about ten years ago now and today, our instruments are in over 130 American prisons and we run songwriting workshop programs in prisons across the states of California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, and New York. 

Can you tell me what the mission is of Jail Guitar Doors? 

It's pretty simple: it's to provide people that live in prisons with the opportunity to learn how to express complex emotions and memories in a positive way — to learn how to communicate how they feel, positively. These are skills that everyone benefits from — how to collaborate with other people, how to talk about how you feel, how to communicate effectively — and we learn all these things in the process of playing music together and specifically in the process of writing songs together. 

So, it's really about establishing a healthy output for emotions and expressing oneself. 

Yeah, it's a transformative tool. If I can get a guitar into a man or a woman or a child's hands and get them to tell their story, it's a way for them to start to see themselves differently, that they're not just the crime they committed, they're not just a bed space, they're not just a number -- that they can actually contribute something of great value to the world. 

How does the program work? 

Well, first we have to make contact with prison authorities. Generally, people that live in prisons will write to us and we'll write back to them and tell them they need to find a qualified decision maker on the prison staff who can authorize the donation of instruments. This is a very time-consuming process, and, in the world of prison time, moves very slowly. 

I'm sure it's very bureaucratic... 

(laughs) And the truth is, many people that work in prisons don't want to see anything good happen for prisoners. There's this attitude that they're sent to prison to be punished, which is wrong. We are not sent to prison to be punished. We're sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. Once we're in prison, the job of the state is to help us figure out what went wrong and what we can do to make sure we never do this again. 

So if we can get the instruments into the facilities, then if we can convince a staff member to allow us to bring teachers in, we will run songwriting workshop programs where every week, when we meet, we'll write songs together and we'll work through a series of situations that start with childhood trauma and work up through our anger, and our forgiveness for ourselves and for the people that we've harmed, and what family means... You know, all the kind of deep, high-ticket items that the prisoners really want to talk about and really want to deal with. I mean, everybody has a story, and everyone needs to have their story heard, and it goes a long way to helping someone rebuild their character with a new orientation. 

What is it about music that specifically facilitates rehabilitation? 

Well, it's such a complex process, first, in the writing, in the text of it, you know. To be able to frame your ideas and your experiences and your feelings in a positive way reinforces the things we want to correct in corrections — people's humanity, their empathy for other human beings, their understanding of different people in different cultures. I've had guys tell me, "you know, that dude over there, man, I never liked that guy. I used to see him on the yard and never liked him, but now we wrote that song together and you know he's all right." Because what we find is if you play music together, you have to talk to each other. If you're doing the creative work of songwriting, you have to talk to each other. And when people talk to each other, they understand they have way more in common than they have different. So it breaks down all those old ideas — those stereotypical racist, homophobic, class ideas — and blows all that away because in our workshops, we don't recognize gang affiliations, we don't recognize race differences, or neighborhood differences, or class differences, or sexual orientation differences in our workshops. Everybody in that room is an artist and we treat each other with dignity and respect. 

Sounds like an amazing program and experience as well. Have any of the songs been recorded? 

We recorded some. It's a minefield trying to record in prisons. All the rules vary from facility to facility and it's very complicated when you start trying to deal with sink rights and publishing splits because to sign someone to a publishing agreement for the songs, means they have to understand publishing, and we're not really in the "educating people about the publishing industry" business. We're in the "helping prisoners" business. So, it's very complicated. We're figuring out a few ways to do it now and we've got some good ideas we want to try to implement this year. I think it will happen and I think it's important, not only from the archival perspective, kind of like the Lomax Family Archives of prison work songs — but more importantly to put a human face on the people that live in prison. American's ideas about the people that live in prisons are really distorted because it comes from film and television. And that's not who's in prison. Who's in prison are people like you and me, regular 'round the way people who made a mistake or who got caught making a mistake. There are many people that make these kinds of mistakes and through wealth or privilege don't go to prison, but those that do, they're just regular people. They just did something wrong. They're exactly the same as you and me and they have the same hopes and same fears and same ambitions and same desires as we do. 

DJ Kevin Cole with the MC5 supergroup, 10-16-18 // photo by Niffer Calderwood


What does Jail Guitar Doors need? How can people help the organization? 

You can go to our website and you can read about everything we do, who we are how we do it. And if you're a musician and you want to teach in a prison, contact us through the website and we will work with you. If you're just a conscious person who wants to participate in making the world a safer and better place you can donate money. Funding is always a challenge. On occasion, people donate instruments to us but I kind of discourage that because usually the instruments we get are so beat up that it costs me more to repair them than it does to buy a new one. 

So, folks that donate, that money will be used to help buy instruments? 


And then there's also the need for teachers and instructors. 

Sure. And all our finances are 100 percent transparent. You know, to function in the non-profit industrial complex and to request granting and funding, all your economics have to be in order. And we really make it a point to keep everything upfront and honest. 

So, the war on drugs is treating drug abuse as a crime rather than a public health issue. These are issues that the MC5 sing about, The Clash were singing about in the '70s into the '80s — they're still prevalent today. What sort of positive change within the system are you seeing now as the result of programs like Jail Guitar Doors? 

Well, it's like turning the Titanic. I mean, this is a 90 billion dollar a year industry and the economic forces are considerable. You know, there's a trend, that zeitgeist is shifting. It's not shifting very fast. And I expect that hyper-incarceration will be with us for a long time to come. You know we lock up more people in America today than any nation in the history of human beings has ever locked up. We have 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. 

That's shocking. 

Yeah. It's really contrary to the American ideal. The politicians discovered there were votes in being perceived as "tough on crime" and they didn't know any better. So they passed all these laws and built all these penitentiaries. When I served my sentence in the 1970s there were 350,000 people in prison in America both in the states' systems and the federal prison system. Today, there's 2.3 million of our fellows serving time. 

And you'd mentioned that the sentence that you received in the '70s today would basically be a life sentence. 

Yeah, for the same offense, exactly right. And there are people serving life without the possibility of parole for the exact same offense that I received a four-year term from the courts. 

A non-violent offense, basically making a mistake. 

Non-violent economic crime. 

So, we're celebrating the enduring impact of The Clash and their music and their message of social justice and human rights activism. What does The Clash mean to you? 

Well, I think they were among the first round of bands that came up in the generation after the MC5 and after the activism of the '60s that brought a social-political consciousness to their work. They didn't hesitate to sing about things that mattered in the world to them and they were also revolutionary in their music. They were influenced by Jamaican reggae and dancehall and they came to America and they all bought beatboxes and they became hip hop fans. So they had big ears. They were pushing the boundaries on every level. And for me, that's what a band should be all about. I mean, not everybody has to do this but somebody has to do it. (laughs) And I'm glad I do it and I'm glad they did it. 

Are there any specific songs or messages that were particularly important to you? 

"Should I Stay or Should I Go" is the classic human question. (laughs) I think they went to the heart of the man. I mean, there were so many, they were really good songwriters. "Train in Vain" just rocks so strong and a lot of other material, you know, it was all terrific. I didn't have any grumbles about The Clash's work. I was a huge fan. 

Do you have a favorite Clash song?

Probably "Train in Vain." 

Not "Jail Guitar Door"?. 

Nah, that one's really good but the other one's better. 

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