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Guitarist Wayne Kramer, founder of the band the MC5, poses with one of the instruments that will be provided to jail inmates as part of the Jail Guitar Doors USA initiative, on Jan. 16, 2012, at Kramer's recording studio in Los Angeles. / Chris Pizzello, AP

LOS ANGELES ?? Packed with inmates and beset by federal probes of prisoner abuse, the grim, concrete-gray Men's Central Jail hardly seems a place for musical inspiration. But a rocker is showing them the way.

"When you're playing music in the prison environment, you're not in prison anymore,'' says Wayne Kramer, 66, a long-ago rock guitar legend who spent two years behind bars at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., on a drug conviction in the late 1970s.

Kramer, who gained fame as lead guitarist for the Detroit-based band MC5, has been venturing back behind iron bars since forming Jail Guitar Doors USA five years ago.

"It's an escape, to be able to do something creative,'' he said. "Music gives you a break from the relentless monotony.''

Since Kramer and his musical friends began showing up in June, a small group of inmates looks forward to that psychic escape every Tuesday evening at the massive county jail complex near Union Station.

"Just to hold a guitar in my hand is taking a lot of the stress of jail out,'' Josh Box, who has been awaiting a year for trial, said. "It's taking me out of here.''

It's a non-profit organization that distributes acoustic guitars and other musical instruments for use by inmates. He and other musicians lead songwriting workshops and jam sessions with the aim of helping rehabilitate prisoners and giving them a positive outlet for expression. USA TODAY was allowed to sit in on a recent class, though jail guards barred photographs from being taken.

So far, the organization has launched programs in 50 jails and prisons, including Cook County Jail in Chicago and Travis County Correctional Complex near Austin, Texas. Next month they expect to begin a program in San Diego's jail.

Only recently have they been allowed into Los Angeles' jail complex. Including the adjacent Twin Towers jail, it houses nearly 20,000 inmates and is one of the largest, most notorious lockups in the nation: Six sheriff's department employees were convicted July 1 of obstructing a federal probe into violence against inmates.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the Men's Central Jail "a windowless dungeon in downtown L.A. that has been plagued by a long-entrenched culture of savage deputy on-inmate violence.'' Mother Jones magazine last year placed L.A. County jails No. 5 on its list of worst prisons in the nation.

Besides offering tips to inmates on music and life, Jail Guitar Doors gives Kramer an opportunity to make the case for prison reform, both to help inmates return to society and to reduce what he calls "hyper incarceration'' laws and policies. By that he means fixed-sentencing laws, California's three-strike mandatory life terms, heavy sentences for drug offenders, and massive public spending on locking up more violators, sometimes in for-profit prisons.

"The prison experience is devastating,'' Kramer says. "It's something I wasn't prepared for ?? the sense of having to be vigilant for your own safety, of fearing for your own safety. All prisoners experience that.''

For two to three hours, participating inmates can forget that while working in small groups with a professional musician to write songs and compose and perform their music on Fender guitars and wooden cajon drums donated by the organization. Toward the end of the session, the 10 inmates gather with their mentors to perform for each other, hear suggestions and refine their pieces. Inmates write all the songs.

"This is our Friday night,'' says Eric Roberts, 48, originally from Maryland, who is awaiting trial in a felony case. "This is as good as it gets.''

The idea was started by another rocker from that era, Billy Bragg, who took musicians and instruments into British prisons. Kramer learned of it when they performed together in 2009 at Sing Sing, the New York state prison, and saw his calling. Bragg had borrowed the name Jail Guitar Doors from the title of a 1977 song by The Clash. Bragg asked Kramer if he knew it.

"Billy,'' Kramer responded, "that song was about me.''

The opening lines recall what Kramer calls his descent to the gutter. "Have you heard about Wayne and his deals with cocaine?'' goes the song written by the late guitarist Joe Strummer and band.

Yet Kramer developed as a musician while behind bars, mentored by jazz greats also locked up for drugs. His latest music project is a jazz album, Lexington, inspired by his time in that prison. It hit the top ten on Soundscan's traditional jazz chart after release in April, according to Rolling Stone. He also scored a documentary, The Narcotics Farm, which the Lexington prison was once called.

In the L.A. jail, inmates earn their way into the program by taking education classes. Some are awaiting trial on relatively small charges up to murder, while others are serving sentences of several years. Because California's prisons are overflowing, judges send some convicts to county jail to serve out felony sentences.

While their charges vary, drug use is the common thread. "I'm just a regular guy who got caught in drugs,'' says Box, facing burglary counts.

In the relaxed mood of a guitar jam, inmates talk, laugh and give each other suggestions. Some bring lots of musical experience, others less. Much pain is expressed.

Lee Watkins, who came west from Chicago to pursue music and is now serving a felony sentence, belted out three of his own songs with a powerful voice. In one song of love lost, he sings, "She invited me to her wedding. I said if I came, I'd bring a machete,'' drawing howls of laughter.

"Music calms people's nerves,'' Watkins says. "I'm just happy to be a part of it.''



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Rock guitarist's music lifts jailhouse blues

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