It’s something that every musician knows: playing an instrument offers you the ability to transcend your surroundings, allowing you to momentarily escape your daily grind. It’s this knowledge that lies behind Jail Guitar Doors, an initiative that aims to provide instruments to those who are using music as a means of achieving the rehabilitation of prison inmates.
Five years ago, I received a letter from Malcolm Dudley, a drug and alcohol counselor working in a local jail. He was using his guitar-playing skills as a means to engage inmates in the process of rehabilitation. Trouble was, he had only one instrument, and that belonged to the padre. I took a half-dozen acoustic guitars up to the prison, saw the potential of the work he was doing and got inspired.
I was looking to do something positive in commemoration of the life of Joe Strummer, frontman of the Clash, who died in 2002. The band was hugely influential in my development, and Malcolm’s project seemed to offer that chance of redemption I heard in their songs.
Taking its name from the B-side of the 1978 single “Clash City Rockers,” Jail Guitar Doors delivered instruments to a dozen prisons in Britain in its first year, and by 2012 had extended its reach to Northern Ireland. Jail Guitar Doors USA was founded three years ago by ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, whose own incarceration in the 1970s inspired the song.
My experience in the fifty-plus prisons I’ve visited in the past five years suggests that if we want inmates to return to society, music could make an important contribution to their rehabilitation. Learning to play guitar and write songs can help offenders to process the challenges and frustrations they face on release in a nonconfrontational way.
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