My SXSW

Wayne Kramer (l) and myself
Wayne Kramer (l) and myself (Photo by Gary Miller)

The guard captain walks up to the mic and says, "Y'all couldn't go to South by Southwest, so we've brought South by Southwest to you." So began the most exclusive panel of this year's Music Festival. You'd need more than a wristband to get in here. The Travis County Correctional Complex is Austin's local jail and holds approximately 2,000 inmates, 10% of them female. Today, it's the venue for the launch of Jail Guitar Doors USA.

On the "panel" we have Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Boots Riley, who performs with Tom in their band the Street Sweeper Social Club, Foo Fighters lead guitarist Chris Shiflett, ex-MC5 guitarist and founder of Jail Guitar Doors USA, Wayne Kramer, and myself.

Jail Guitar Doors is a musician-led initiative dedicated to raising money to provide guitars and other musical instruments to those working in prisons to achieve rehabilitation. We believe that learning to play guitar and write songs can help equip ex-offenders with a mechanism to process the challenges and frustrations they face on release in a nonconfrontational way.

It began three years ago when I was contacted by an addictions counsellor working in a prison near where I live in England. He was using his skills as a musician to engage inmates in the process of rehabilitation, but was unable to make much progress as he only had the one guitar. He wrote to me asking for help to provide enough instruments to make a difference, and so Jail Guitar Doors was born, taking its name from an old Clash B-side.

Since then, we've made interventions in more than 30 prisons in the UK and provided guitars, electric and acoustic, basses, keyboards, and drums to facilitate rehabilitation work. Last year, after a visit to Sing Sing prison in upstate New York with Wayne Kramer, he decided to take the initiative here in the USA. Yesterday was our first official event.

Wayne opens the proceedings and immediately wins over the 150 inmates by introducing himself as an alcoholic. Drug and alcohol abuse play a huge part in sending people on a downward spiral that ends in jail, something which the men and women sitting dressed in ill-fitting suits with wide gray stripes are only too aware. When Wayne speaks of his own incarceration on drugs charges in the 1970s – an event that inspired the Clash to write "Jail Guitar Doors" – the audience responds with eager questions about how he put his life back together.

Chris Shiflett opens the musical proceedings with a rousing song, then Wayne steps up to the mic to sing Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," the line, "None but ourselves can free our minds" having special resonance in this place. I speak of how the six acoustic guitars that we are donating to the jail today represent our faith in each inmate's ability to be rehabilitated and return to society, then I sing my own "I Keep Faith."

Tom Morello takes the stage in the guise of the Nightwatch-man and tears up the place with an intense version of "Flesh Shapes the Day," which had the audience howling and stomping along in delight. After calling up his Street Sweeper colleagues for a number, the whole group finished off with an ensemble version of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released."

Captain Kovar from Travis County Sheriff's Office closes the event by telling the inmates that he hopes this will be the start of something special. If Jail Guitar Doors have anything to do with it, we'll make the Travis County jail gig an integral part of SXSW.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Jail Guitar Doors, Billy Bragg, Wayne Kramer, Tom Morello

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