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.
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.”
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.
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.
It took two years to organize the concert, as the prison couldn't afford to pay guards the overtime required for the event.
The performance included “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Knocking on Heaven's Door” and the MC5's “Kick Out the Jams”.
“Some are obviously very basic and some are sophisticated,” Kramer says of prisoners' musical output. “There are a lot of talented people in jail.”
“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.
“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.”
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.”