Founder of MC5 and Volunteers Rally Strength Behind Bars
By DONNA BALANCIA
SAN DIEGO – Wayne Kramer and his Jail Guitar Doors charity visited their 100th prison on Friday, bringing guitars and music behind the walls of Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.
Kramer, founder of punk’s first band, the controversial MC5 of Detroit, presented custom Fender guitars to Donovan and inmates got a mini concert and a piece of cake to mark the important occasion.
“These guitars represent a challenge,” Kramer told an assembly of incarcerated men. “If you accept these guitars and you sign up for our songwriting workshop, amazing things will happen. You’ll find new friendships, a connection with each other and with yourself. I’ll be back to see how you’re doing. I wish you well.”
A Personal Challenge to Change
Kramer, whose MC5 led a countercultural revolution with gritty rock music from the streets of Detroit in 1968, still rallies the call for protest. Only instead of enlisting the support of Black Panthers, radicals and disenfranchised middle-class kids, he quietly brings his message of hope to those destined to live their lives behind prison walls.
Today, Jail Guitar Doors established songwriting workshops at Donovan. The program is established and successful in many other prisons throughout the United States. Enabling incarcerated people to have a creative outlet and coping mechanism is the goal of Jail Guitar Doors.
“It’s great to get new equipment,” said Mark “Bobby” Hill, an aspiring blues guitarist and inmate. He is one of the inmates who formed a band and gets together with others to regularly play the music of his rock idols Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn. “The guys are looking forward to this today.”
Whether they are musically inclined or not, the inmates spent an afternoon appreciating music and laying down some tunes. Donovan’s Echo Yard is the home to several programs that encourage creative arts including the music program. There are aspiring musicians ranging from blues players to rappers.
‘Time Moves Slowly’ Behind Bars, Kramer Knows
Bringing music into the prisons is a very personal subject to Kramer, who started the Jail Guitar Doors program in the United States. The founder of the controversial MC5, spent three years in prison on drug charges. His imprisonment was immortalized in 1977 when The Clash recorded “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song detailing the plight of their hero and fellow musician.
Kramer said time moves slowly behind bars and the prisoners are not only able to learn a trade during their sentence, but they are able to learn ways to deal with their emotional challenges. And music can play a critical role.
Kramer and his crew visit the prisons and he takes the time to listen to the inmates and give words of encouragement. Volunteers include singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, and musicians Rob Bird, Robin Henkel and Jail Guitar Doors program administrator Kathy Kambes.
Enlisting Aspiring Musicians Behind the Wall
Inmate Burnell Kelly has spent 31 years behind bars and like the other inmates in the gym on this day, he is allowed to participate in the creative program because he has attained a non-violent status among the inmates. Those who have less time to go behind the wall tend to have more of an impetus to behave in an acceptable manner and therefore are permitted time in the arts programs.
Kelly said the music program and visits from people like Kramer and his crew are encouraging.
“It’s very important,” he said. “It allows dudes to open their creative spirit.”
‘Behind The Wall Records’ a New Label at Donovan
Kelly said the guys are putting together Behind The Wall Records, a label, under the direction of record producer Paul Stuart, who wants to capture the “authentic” feeling of music from the inmates.
“I’m interested in music because it’s an opportunity to expand my horizons,” said inmate Josh Nichols. “It’s great because we all have bad habits we’re trying to overcome and music is a way to be creative.”
Music Helps To Cope With Emotions
Kramer said that the music program is important to the guys behind the wall but there is also a need for former inmates to help guide the newly released prisoners when they get out.
The Jail Guitar Doors program is based on a program in the UK and Kramer has a budget of $10-$15,000 a year. It receives support from various government arts initiatives and corporate supporters including Dr. Bonner’s Soap.
Rappers, Blues Artists and Rock Behind the Wall
It was a treat for the inmates to get a visit from Kramer. Rapper Joey Young knows a lot of different kinds of music and says his songwriting covers a lot of different feelings.
“I write about love, about struggle and the things people go through,” he said. Joey Young collaborates with other inmate musicians like fellow rapper G3 and keyboardist Danny Castro.
‘Effect a Change’
Kramer said to the group: “We hope to effect a change. It takes a change of heart to make a difference and art does that. When you listen to each other it’s an act of revolutionary love.
“If you educate a criminal you have an educated criminal. So the the change has to be in here, a change of heart, a fundamental change. The only thing we know of that will change people on that deep level is art or sports.”
‘Play Music Because You Love It’
Eugene Ballance, who said he would be up for parole soon, was planning his post-prison career and asked Kramer about what he can do to get his music out to the public.
“The music business is difficult now,” Kramer told him. “Play music because you love it. But for work you should do something else, like learn how to code and you will always have a job.”
“All the men will be returning to streets and if we don’t help them deal with their challenges, they will be bringing those issues back to the streets with them. We’re interested in the ‘correcting’ part in corrections. The enemy is not Republican or Democrat. The enemy is cynicism. Justice needs to be tempered with mercy.”
He said the hardest thing about readjusting to life on the outside was something we all take for granted.
“The hardest thing was going to the supermarket,” Kramer said. “There were too many choices.”
Jail Guitar Doors Volunteers are ‘Repairmen’
Kramer said the work his Jail Guitar does is very important. He thinks of himself and his crew as the “repairmen,” helping to bring about a change. There are many prisons throughout the U.S. that could use help in establishing creative programs for the men and women in the system.
“It’s tragic that in our society there’s a sense of retribution and punishment for prisoners,” Kramer said. “But you need justice tempered with mercy to be just.”