Wayne Kramer is changing the world again. As the guitarist of the MC5, Kramer helped pioneer the wild, unbridled jazz-infused rock sound that helped revolutionize hard rock music. But the MC5 was more than its music. Songs like “Kick out the Jams” were a rallying cry for an entire generation that no longer wanted to sit by passively but wanted to take action. Leading by example, Kramer and the MC5 worked to support civil rights with free concerts such as their famous live performance during the protest of the Vietnam War at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And now, through his nonprofit organization Jail Guitar Doors USA, Kramer continues that revolutionary spirit of action by speaking out against the mass incarceration caused by the “War on Drugs” and helping inmates rehabilitate through music.
Kramer does not mince words in his assessment of the War on Drugs. “The War on Drugs has been the greatest failure of domestic policy in our history,” he said. “Never in the history of this country, or of any country, have we incarcerated more of our citizens unnecessarily.” Unfortunately, the evidence supports his statement. The stated goal of the War on Drugs has been to stop the devastating public health consequences ofaddiction in part through criminalizing possession of drugs, even for nonviolent offenders. Accordingly, American taxpayers have spent over $1 trillion to fund the War on Drugs, which has lead to the incarceration of more than 2 million people. But there is currently little evidence that criminalizing addiction lessens the problem. One Canadian review of 23 studies found that incarceration did not improve recidivism.
Part of the reason for the ineffectiveness of criminalizing drug use is that substance dependence is the only mental health condition whose main feature, the possession of drugs, is considered a crime. According to Kramer, “The prisons have become our de facto mental health care facilities and they’re not really set up for that.” The majority of prisoners do not receive adequate treatment for drug addiction while in prison. Moreover, being in prison does not allow an individual to address the various stressors that may perpetuate addiction (e.g., family conflict, poverty). According to Kramer, it is particularly noticeable how incarceration disconnects inmates from their family. “Many of the people are around Los Angeles, but these prisons are scattered all across the state, making connection with family difficult,” he said. “And we know that families are a key element in the work of restoration and rehabilitation.” The lives of those convicted and incarcerated are further marginalized as criminal records result in difficulty getting jobs, as well as loss of welfare and other benefits and voting rights. These stressors often wait for an individual following release from prison, thus representing significant risk for relapse.
Enter Jail Guitar Doors, a program designed to change lives through the healing power of music. In 1978, The Clash released the song, “Jail Guitar Doors,” which references Kramer’s imprisonment and drug problems. Later, in 2007, as a way of honoring the life of Joe Strummer, who founded The Clash, Billy Bragg launched an initiative in England called “Jail Guitar Doors” to provide musical equipment for inmates to aid in rehabilitation. In 2009, Bragg partnered with Kramer to found Jail Guitar Doors USA and expand the mission of rehabilitation for prisoners in America.
At the core of this rehabilitative process is empathy for inmates. Empathy has been shown to be a core curative factor in healing, and modeling empathy can teach inmates to develop empathy, for themselves and others. Kramer said, “What we’re trying to do is to teach people a way to express themselves that is non-confrontational. That there’s a positive way to say this is who I am in the world. And I’m part of the world. It gives people a chance to get in touch with their own humanity. When you play music with someone, you’ve got to talk to them. And traditional barriers tend to melt away.”
The research evidence supports his assertion. We now know through controlled treatment outcome studies that listening to and playing music is a potent treatment for mental health issues. Studies suggest that exposure to prosocial lyrics increases positive thought, empathy and helping behavior. Research demonstrates that improved social connection and support can improve mental health outcomes. Thus, any music that helps connect people can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health.
There is an emerging body of research suggesting that these findings are consistent among inmates. Literature reviews demonstrate evidence of inmates developing improved self-esteem and discipline as well as demonstrating fewer disciplinary infractions consequent to arts and music programs. One of the potential benefits seen is that music education can provide a pathway to interest and participation in more mainstream education. There is extensive literature that traditional education programs improve recidivism after release. As Kramer says, “The best investment to stop recidivism is to get a college degree.”
Further, Kramer is using Jail Guitar Doors to teach the rest of the world empathy for inmates as a way of shining a light on this devastating process. Kramer says, “People have strong feelings about justice and accountability and retribution, but they know nothing about what happens in the world of American punishment because it’s all kept secret. It’s hidden away from public view and it’s out of sight, out of mind. Americans in particular need to know what is being done in their name.” This includes shining a light on the harsh treatment many receive in prison, as demonstrated by the recent review of treatment of prisoners in Rikers Island. “Not only do you lose your freedom, but you are unsafe all the time,” Kramer says. “[Inmates experience] brutality to embarrassment to emasculation and degradation on a level that most people could not comprehend.”
The task of addressing this widespread social problem is not easy, but is necessary. As Kramer says, “If we don’t take advantage of the opportunity while someone is incarcerated to help them change for the better, they will most certainly change for the worse.”