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The Most Exclusive Concert in Town? Prison

Lancaster prisoners line up to watch a performance. They must remain 15 feet from the fence at all times
Lancaster prisoners line up to watch a performance. They must remain 15 feet from the fence at all times
Nicole Weingart

In the late 1960s, Wayne Kramer helped forge punk rock as a member of Michigan-based MC5, who influenced groups including the Sex Pistols and Black Flag. By 1976, Kramer was in a Detroit prison for selling drugs. The Clash even wrote a song, "Jail Guitar Doors," about the incarcerated guitarist.

The clean-living Kramer was released in 1978 and three decades later brought together a group of musicians, including British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg, for a benefit gig. Bragg had written "jail guitar doors" on his guitar, and founded a non-profit organization named after the song to provide instruments to prison inmates in Britain. Kramer brought the organization stateside in 2009.

Kramer receives a shipment of donated instruments
Kramer receives a shipment of donated instruments
Nicole Weingart

Now based in Los Angeles, Jail Guitar Doors provides new and used musical equipment to inmates in an effort to provide them an outlet for self expression, and through that, rehabilitation.

"Prisoners are a population that is largely forgotten about, and the prison system is designed to make inmates feel that they have no self worth," Kramer says. "Having the resources to write music and play music can be very powerful for them, knowing that they've created something of value."

Equipment with the organization's Shepard Fairey-designed logo
Equipment with the organization's Shepard Fairey-designed logo
Nicole Weingart

Famed street artist Shepard Fairey designed the logo stamped on all of the gear donated by Jail Guitar Doors. "I think that art and music are really great therapy," Fairey told Complex last year.

Wayne Kramer entering California State Prison, Lancaster to perform for the incarcerated inmates
Wayne Kramer entering California State Prison, Lancaster to perform for the incarcerated inmates
Nicole Weingart

Jail Guitar Doors also produces concerts in various prisons in the United States and the U.K. Kramer says that while gaining prison access is a "bureaucratic nightmare," the effort is worth it for the gratitude expressed by prisoners and prison employees. Participating musicians at a show held at Los Angeles County's Lancaster State Prison last year included Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke of Guns 'n Roses, Corey Parks of Nashville Pussy, Jill Sobule, and jazz musician Phil Ranelin.

Musicians trying to get into prison
Musicians trying to get into prison
Nicole Weingart

It took two years to organize the concert, as the prison couldn't afford to pay guards the overtime required for the event.

Wayne Kramer and his limited edition Jail Guitar Doors guitar, created by Fender.
Wayne Kramer and his limited edition Jail Guitar Doors guitar, created by Fender.
Nicole Weingart

The performance included "Folsom Prison Blues", "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams".

The performance at Lancaster State Prison
The performance at Lancaster State Prison
Nicole Weingart

"Some are obviously very basic and some are sophisticated," Kramer says of prisoners' musical output. "There are a lot of talented people in jail."

One of the prisoners rapping along with the band
One of the prisoners rapping along with the band
Nicole Weingart

"When he was up onstage," Kramer says of an inmate that participated in the performance, "that was the highlight of the whole experience for me." Jail Guitar Doors is currently attempting to organize another prison concert somewhere in the L.A. area.

Prisoners congratulate their fellow inmate after his performance
Prisoners congratulate their fellow inmate after his performance
Nicole Weingart

"Prison tends to deny humanity to prisoners," a Lancaster inmate wrote in a letter to Kramer after the show. "We are crimes, and bed spaces; inmates to be shuffled around like chunks of matter devoid of sentience. But knowing that a group of talented artists took the time out of their lives to come and entertain us sent the inescapable message that prisoners long to hear: 'You are human beings, just like us, and we care about your welfare.' That's bigger than just about anything else I can imagine."

Tom Morello, Kramer and Billy Bragg
Tom Morello, Kramer and Billy Bragg
Nicole Weingart

Jail Guitar Doors hosts various fund-raising events in Los Angeles and recently played a benefit show at the Ford Amphitheatre, with performances by musicians Kramer, Bragg, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, Jackson Browne and host Jay Mohr.

"The things that happen to people in jail rarely help them become better people or prepare them for reintegration," Kramer says. "We're trying to provide an outlet for these people to express complex emotions and do something they can be proud of. That can make all the difference in the world."

Here's more information on Jail Guitar Doors.

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