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Wayne Kramer and His Jail Guitar Doors Visit 100th Prison, Setting Benchmark Behind the Wall

Teaching Music to Inmates Gives Inspiration


Wayne Kramer and Jail Guitar Doors charity visited its 100th prison on Friday, bringing guitars and music behind the walls of Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

Kramer and his volunteer crew brought custom Fender guitars to Donovan and musically inclined inmates got a mini concert and a piece of cake to mark the important occasion.

“These guitars represent a challenge,” said Kramer. “If you accept these guitars and you sign up for our songwriting workshop amazing things will happen. You’ll find a new friendship and connection with each other and yourself. I will be back to see how you’re doing. I wish you well.”

Wayne Kramer of Jail Guitar Doors addresses the prisoners at Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Guitars and Songwriting Workshop: ‘A Challenge’

Kramer brought a volunteer crew with him to present the guitars and play a mini-concert in the gymnasium at Donovan State Correctional Facility. Jail Guitar Doors has enabled a songwriting workshop at Donovan along with several other prisons throughout the United States.

“It would be great to get new equipment,” said Mark “Bobby” Hill, an aspiring blues guitarist and inmate. He is one of several 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.”

Wayne Kramer jots the important info down for musically inclined inmates at Donovan – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Donovan Correctional Facility Houses Aspiring Musicians

Whether they are musically inclined or not, the inmates spent an afternoon appreciating music and laying down some licks. 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.

Jail Guitar Doors is an important program that Kramer started in the United States.  He spent three years in prison and said time moves slowly behind bars and the prisoners are not only able to learn a trade but also learn ways to deal with their emotional challenges. Music fills that void.

Wayne Kramer fields individual questions about the music business – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

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 program administrator Kathy Kambes.

Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule performs with Wayne Kramer at Donovan – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Jail Guitar Doors Volunteers Make The Time

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.

Inmates at Donovan Correctional Facility ask rocker Wayne Kramer questions about the music program – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

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.”

Rob Bird plays ‘The Hurt’ for interested onlookers at Donovan – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Behind The Wall Records a New Label

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.”

Josh Nichols of San Diego says music is an important factor in rehabilitation – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Music Helps Coping 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.

The yard at Donovan Correctional Facility – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

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.

‘Rappers’ Joey Young and G3 collaborate through the music program at Donovan – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

‘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.”

Rap group at Donovan performs for Wayne Kramer – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

‘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.”

The men paid close attention to the words of former inmate Wayne Kramer, who founded Jail Guitar Doors because of his experience – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

“All the men will be returning to streets 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.”

Music and the arts can help in dealing with communication issues – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

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.”

Mark ‘Bobby’ Hill plays his blues guitar for Wayne Kramer and onlookers – Photo © 2017 Donna Balanci

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.”

Wayne Kramer and his Jail Guitar Doors crew see themselves as ‘repairmen’ helping the incarcerated population – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Jail Guitar Doors hit a benchmark visiting 100th prison – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Guitars are tools for coping and emotional growth – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Musicians say Jail Guitar Doors hits the right notes – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Aspiring rapper ‘Joey Young’ says he was a bodyguard for Snoop Dogg – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


The guards know the importance of music on the yard – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Donovan Correctional Facility was the 100th prison visited by Jail Guitar Doors – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Life behind the wall at Donovan – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia


Wayne Kramer has made Jail Guitar Doors his life’s work since his own 3-year incarceration – Photo © 2017 Donna Balancia

Wayne Kramer and Jail Guitar Doors Concert ‘Rock Out 3!’ Bring Humanity Out from Behind Prison Bars

Don Was and Marshall Crenshaw - Donna Balancia California Rocker

Don Was and Marshall Crenshaw – Photo by Donna Balancia


Wayne Kramer still champions the underdog.

Kramer, founder of MC5, the legendary band that started the punk revolution, is still raging — to help those behind bars.

He was joined by Don Was, Marshall Crenshaw, Gilby Clarke and a host of others at The Ford Theatres at a concert called Rock Out 3! to benefit Jail Guitar Doors USA.

The organization brings musical instruments into prisons and youth camps, teaches inmates music, and creates hope for those behind bars.

Wayne Kramer and Marshall Crenshaw - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia for California Rocker

Wayne Kramer and Marshall Crenshaw – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

“We give them a guitar to pick up so when they get out they won’t pick up a gun,” Kramer said. “The music takes them out of their surroundings and gives them hope.”

Rock Out! 3, the third annual Benefit Concert for Jail Guitar Doors USA drew fans and rockers alike.

Jail Guitar Doors is a California non-profit organization that provides musical instruments and opportunities to help rehabilitate prisoners.

In 2009, musicians/activists Kramer and Billy Bragg created Jail Guitar Doors USA, which puts on music based prison outreach programs that work to help minimize prison violence and give hope to inmates.

‘Personal Subject’ for Kramer

Wayne Kramer, Alma Robinson and Larry Brewster - California Rocker

Wayne Kramer, Alma Robinson and Larry Brewster – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

It’s a very personal subject to Kramer who was incarcerated on drug charges. In 1977 The Clash recorded “Jail Guitar Doors,” a song detailing the imprisonment of their hero and fellow musician, MC5’s Kramer.

There are devoted volunteers who all showed up at the Ford Theatre event. While there may be a stigma about working with “tough guys,” volunteer Donna Jo Thorndale said when she goes into the prisons she has no preconceived notions.

No Judgment Zone

“The inmates have been judged enough, they don’t need me to judge them.”

Donna Jo says she’s seen progress as a result of the work of Jail Guitar Doors.

Larry Brewster and Donna Jo Thorndale - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Larry Brewster and Donna Jo Thorndale – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

“When they focus on the music it helps them to develop self confidence and that’s an ‘inside job.'”

Prof. Larry Brewster said after going into the prisons, he comes away with “new best friends.”

“I’ve made some good friendships,” said Larry, a professor at University of San Francisco.

Teaching volunteer Cody Marks agreed.

“It feels good to get through to the guys,” Cody said. “We form bonds with the prison population and when one guy might be transferred we’ll see sometimes them again at another prison.”

Wayne Kramer: ‘Progress Being Made’

Don Was said he’s been working with Kramer on Jail Guitar Doors for several years.

Wayne Kramer - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Wayne Kramer – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Was gets a great deal of satisfaction out of seeing progress.

“It could be anyone of us in there,” said Don Was, who was a headliner at the event. “We tend to believe that the prison population is some other species, but if one or two things didn’t go the right way, it could just as easily be me or you in there.”

A couple of years ago, we went in to Sing Sing Prison and we played a concert,” Was said. “Some people screw up and people tend to forget that about this population.”

Jail Guitar Doors lobbyies against unjust lengthy prison sentences, the privatization of prisons for profit, and seeks to restore humanity in a forgotten segment of our citizens: Those incarcerated.

Wayne, Cody and Jeff - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Wayne, Cody and Jeff – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Program Growing With Number of Inmates

From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled, skyrocketing from roughly 500,000, to 2.3 million, according to the US Bureau of Statistics.

Kramer said Jail Guitar Doors is in 65 prisons, there are songwriting workshops in four.

Kramer was joined at the event by Jill Sobule, Elainie Mandel, Crenshaw, Clarke, Keith Morris, Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls and The Wild Reeds.

Bobcat Goldthwait and Matt Pinfield were special guests with Goldthwait as emcee.

Jason Heath, frontman for Jason Heath and The Greedy Souls said he was happy to participate.

Wayne Kramer and friends - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Wayne Kramer and friends – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

“It’s important to remember the people who are serving prison terms,” Heath said. “And we’re honored to play this show.”

Highlight of the evening was an all-star version MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams,” with all the musicians doing their own thing up there

“We do this because we care and we want to let them know inside the prison that the people outside care,” Cody said.

No Easy Job

The Jail Guitar Doors is not an easy undertaking.

Cody said that there was an extensive process to bring in musical equipment in to work with the prisoners.

Wayne Kramer and Jill Sobule - Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

Wayne Kramer and Jill Sobule – Photo © 2016 Donna Balancia

“They check everything,” Cody said. “They even count the strings that you have for the guitars, they look at the picks,” she said. “One time we broke a string, you have to be careful everything is accounted for.”

Songs ranging from The Who cover “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by Clarke, to “Television Light,” by Crenshaw, Eleni Mandell’s “I Belong To Someone New,” brought out the best in the evening before the showstopper finale.

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