Statement from Wayne Kramer
Senator Curren Price, Chair, Joint Committee on the Arts
Hearing May 3, 2013
Good afternoon. My name is Wayne Kramer and Iâ€™m known in the world mostly as a musician. I write music for movies and television shows and still tour occasionally.
But for a few years, I was known as 00180190. I am an ex-offender. I am also a sober alcoholic and drug addict. I learned in recovery that the antidote for my disorder is to be of service to my fellows. My fellows are the 2.3 million men and women in American prisons.
I find that I am uniquely positioned as a musician and ex-convict to be a bridge between the two worlds and, along with the great British troubadour and activist Billy Bragg, and my wife Margaret, I founded Jail Guitar Doors USA four years ago at Sing Sing Prison in New York.
What we do is simple. We find people who work in corrections that are willing to use music as a tool for rehabilitation and we provide them with guitars. We run programs and we sometimes organize in-prison concert events. We also work for legislative change and justice reform.
Mass incarceration has created a permanent underclass of Americans who are excluded from mainstream life. As a result, there now exists a sub-culture of ex-offenders who are mostly people of color and of limited economic means who are disenfranchised and faced with challenges that most Americans could not conceive of.
Let me be clear. Jail Guitar Doors believes in personal responsibility and the rule of law, but, retribution over rehabilitation as Justice policy makes a mockery of the ideal of Justice and has done incalculable damage to millions of American families and communities.
Why is this so? Because American political expediency has given birth to policies that serve politiciansâ€™ interests — at the expense of those whom they have sworn to serve.
To quote Sen. Jim Webb: â€œWe have an incarceration rate in the United States, the worldâ€™s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. It is obviously the latter.â€
Along with sentencing reform, offender rehabilitation is the only rational response to our incoherent prison policies of human warehousing. What I can add to the conversation is from our own experience in prisons, with prisoners.
When we put a guitar in a prisonerâ€™s hand, he has the opportunity to express himself in — maybe for the first time ever — a non-confrontational way. A positive and educational way. We know that education is important, but education alone is not enough. A Sheriffâ€™s Deputy once told me, â€œIf I educate a criminal, I have an educated criminal. Whatâ€™s needed is a change of heart.â€
A change of heart is what art, music, writing, theater, painting, sculpture, poetry, and dance can produce: A fundamental change in the way an offender sees himself. Art is anger management. I know from my years in prison that prison is a world designed to reinforce the feeling that you are worthless. Being able to create something where there was nothing is a great argument against that worthlessness. The self-discipline required to create a song teaches the songwriter that change is possible. Something from nothing. That you can make it in the world.
During my time at FCI-Lexington, I was mentored by another inmate/musician, the great jazz trumpeter â€œRedâ€ Rodney. One inmate teaching another is a profound act. It meant everything to me. Learning from another musician breaks down all the barriers that keep people apart. When we deliver guitars to correctional facilities, weâ€™ve witnessed this happen over and over. Inmates of different races, different gangs, different classes, all come together play music and to teach one another.
We donâ€™t provide guitars as gifts. These guitars are a challenge to step up and do the hard work necessary to change a life for the better and then rejoin your friends and family out here in the community. The guitars send a message that the people who paid for them believe in you, that you are capable of change, and they want you to do better. If you accept our guitars, then you accept that challenge.
Jail Guitar Doors is in over 30 U.S. prisons: California, Arizona, Nevada, Virginia, Washington State, Oregon and we have songwriting programs in Austin TX, Chicago, Ill and here at Wayside in Castaic. Weâ€™ve got Philly and LAâ€™s Twin Towers waiting as well. We also have guitars in two of Californiaâ€™s CA Youth Camps.
I canâ€™t do better than to read an excerpt from a recent letter from a fellow in a music program we started in Arizona.
“We have never met, but you have had a tremendous impact on my life. The drum kit you donated is my place of joy. I’ve also been learning guitar on the guitars you donated. What a privilege it is to play music. I feel like a human being when I play. I have seen this equipment work miracles in the lives of convicts. You are changing the world one person at a time. I won’t be returning. I get to go home in 1 year (on a 6 year bit) and I will keep playing. Your work creates a powerful, lasting ripple effect out to many souls. May god bless you.” Florence, AZ
We are all, in fact, â€œOur brothers keeperâ€.
If we donâ€™t work to help offenders change for the better, they will surely change for the worse. If we donâ€™t refocus our energy and commitment to helping offenders achieve a positive change, the only thing the get-tough policies will have produced is a nation that is not safer, but less safe by the release of millions of men and women who have been held, many for decades, in a world of racism, violence, bitterness and defeat.
I know it sounds like this is an impossible task, turning the giant prison industrial complex machine around, and it is a formidable undertaking. But we would be if we didnâ€™t try?
People made this mess and people can fix it.
I would like to thank the Joint Committee on the Arts and Senator Curren Price and Assemblyman Ian Calderon for allowing me to join you today to talk a little from my perspective on mass incarceration and what we are doing about it.