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Interview:
MC5's Wayne Kramer opens the door for music as prison rehab
 

By GARY GRAFF
Digital First Media, @GraffonMusic

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When Wayne Kramer first heard "Jail Guitar Doors" -- a 1978 song the Clash wrote about him -- the MC5 co-founder was fresh out of jail after serving a two-year sentence for drug trafficking.

"One of my friends in England told me about it, and the Clash were coming to Detroit and I went over to see them and just say hi and Joe Strummer and Mick Jones said, 'Hey, we wrote a song about you," recalls Kramer, 66, a native of Lincoln Park who now resides in Los Angeles. "They gave me a copy of the single, and I thought it was a great show of solidarity and mutual respect that here were these guys I didn't know, and they were from England, and (the MC5) had spent a lot of time over there...

"I was so overwhelmed just coming back from prison I didn't think that much of it -- for decades. I really didn't want to think about the fact I went to prison and just tried to go on as if that was just an unpleasant episode.

"But it was more than that."

That it was. In fact, Kramer has taken "Jail Guitar Doors" from a punk rock anthem and turned it into the signature for his own initiative to help prison rehabilitation efforts around the U.S. -- and, starting this week, in Michigan.

Encouraged by British troubadour Billy Bragg -- who started the original Jail Guitar Doors program in England -- Kramer and his wife launched Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2009. The idea is the bring musical instruments, specifically guitars, into prisons for inmates to learn and use. Kramer has also launched songwriting workshops for prisoners, believing that "art teaches us the secret of how to work. A lot of people that end up in prison never learned the skill of sitting in one place and finishing a task. Writing a poem or a story or making a painting or writing a song, playing an instrument all do that. It's a great way to process one's problems -- in prison or not."

Jail Guitar Doors USA's guitars are currently in more than 60 American prisons, while Kramer's workshops have been implemented in Los Angeles County, San Diego County, Travis County in Texas, Cook County, Ill., and Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. He'll be launching the Michigan initiative on Friday, April 10, at Saginaw Regional Correction Facility in conjunction with Michigan's Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). Prior to that he'll be speaking on Tuesday, April 7, in Ann Arbor, performing as part of Detroit's Art X on Thursday, April 9, at the Detroit Institute of Arts and taking part in a panel discussion on Friday morning at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

"Music is a very powerful vehicle to teach someone a new, positive, non-confrontational way to express complex feelings," Kramer explains. "Every time I go into a jail and a prison, I see it. I get mail about it." Jail Guitar Doors studies, he adds, reveal that convicts who participate in arts programs have a 75 percent lower rate of recidivism than those who don't.

Jail Guitar Doors also came along at a crucial time for the U.S. penal system, according to Kramer. While his own jail stay was "at the end of the era for rehabilitation in American punishment," With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., he feels "the basis of our corrections has become retribution and not rehabilitation" as funding for "constructive" programs has dried up. The tied is turning somewhat, he says -- "They're slowly starting to come back. Slowly." -- but with 90 percent of Michigan's prison population hailing from metro Detroit Kramer and Jail Guitar Doors are planning to "plant the seeds" for further growth here, and elsewhere, to promote better results for the prisoners and, in turn, society.

"One is sentenced to prison as punishment, not FOR punishment," says Kramer, who's balancing Jail Guitar Doors with fatherhood (he has a 20-month-old son, his first child) and "trying to make a living" -- mostly through film and TV scores including NBC's "Bad Judge," and the prison documentaries "The Mind of Mark DeFriest" and "Lexington," the latter about the Kentucky facility where he served time.

"People should be held accountable for breaking the social contract by the amount of time that you lose your liberty. We don't have corporal punishment anymore -- ore at least that's what we say. What we do is injustice; locking people up for decades for non-violent drug offenses is punishment that does not fit the crime, and what we're hoping to do is make sure there's some rehabilitation that goes on rather than just punishment."

Kicking Out The Jams

Wayne Kramer will launch Jail Guitar Doors' Michigan initiative this week with the following events:

* A conversation and acoustic performance at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 7, at the Duderstadt Center Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd., on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Visit www.dc.umich.edu.

* A performance, backed by Detroit's Howling Diablos, as part of an Art X event at 9 p.m. Thursday, April 9, that also includes a showing of the Grande Ballroom documentary "Louder Than Love" at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave. Call 313-833-9700 or visit www.ArtXDetroit.com.

* A panel discussion "Rethinking Justice" at noon Friday, April 10, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit Cafe, 4454 Woodward Ave. Call 313-832-6622 or visit www.mocadetroit.com.

* A visit to the Saginaw Regional Correctional Facility at 7 p.m. Friday.

Web Site: www.ArtXDetroit.com

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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