Jail Guitar Doors launches Australia

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on UnSplash

It may seem an age ago now, but one balmy night a crowd of over 70,000 at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium saw Alice Cooper headline at Fire Fight Australia, the benefit concert that saw proceeds go to young Australians in bushfire affected communities. Supporting him were US hard rock group MC50 with the renowned Detroit guitarist Wayne Kramer, and the very next day he took time out to visit one of Sydney’s prisons to have a talk with some of its inmates about music as a positive influence in their lives.

There in the same room at the Dawn De Loas Correctional Centre in Silverwater were two fellow band mates and one of their roadies. And listening keenly was Dr Linda Lorenza. A lecturer at the Central Queensland Conservatorium of Music, CQUniversity, and having previously helped juvenile offenders through her work with theatre company, Bell Shakespeare, she had come along to help set up an initiative in Sydney called Jail Guitar Doors, which offers rehabilitation to prisoners through workshops in song writing.

She describes what the occasion was like in front of the inmates.

“The thing that was so powerful was telling his story to the guys. Wayne explained to them that he himself had gone to gaol because he got picked up with drugs. He said it was a small amount and it was back in the 70s, but he said ‘I know exactly where you are, because I’ve been there’.” He thought it was so important to share this, and you could see the inmates say, ‘Well that’s alright then’. They asked him intricate questions about what drugs they were, when it happened, and more, to which he replied he was in gaol for two or so years, and that if he’d got caught with the same amount now it would be for life.”

Kramer did not have a guitar with him during the visit, but Lorenza recalls how the visit panned out.

“He asked the warden, ‘I don’t suppose you have a guitar around the place’. They found him one and he said ‘I just wanted to share a few prison songs with you.’ He started with Johnny Cash – that got them in straightaway, and he followed it with an Irish song. I felt so privileged to be in the room at the time. I was the only woman there, and did not want to be seen weeping!” He was so down to earth, saying ‘This is what we do, we give concerts or talk to people. We happen to be gifted with music and just want to share’.”

The Jail Guitar Doors initiative began in the UK in 2007 with the efforts of singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, and takes its name from a 1977 song of the same name by English punk band The Clash, which references Kramer’s fate as a prisoner. Kramer pushed for its adoption in the US in 2009, and now it is being taken up in Australia. Lorenza was contacted by Kat Kambes, Director of Operations at Jail Guitar Doors USA, and it started from there. Fortuitously she had a relative who was working with NSW Correctional Services, and knew contacts to help open doors.

“We now have the support,” she says. “Twenty brand new Fender guitars arrived in late April. They are not to give away but to be shared around as the inmates work in groups writing songs.”

She says they were aghast at first about having to write songs, until Kramer explained the process involved. “‘Your first place is what’s most important to you, your family, your kids,’ he told them. So it is about working out the lyrics. In the US he said he has found these guys come up with quite complex lyrics, melodies and harmonies.”

And this is the point, she emphasises. “Collaborating to achieve this is what happens out in the community when they leave prison. Kramer told them, ‘You may find you have little or nothing in common with people you meet, but you will have the resilience and capacity to work with them’.”

“It makes for a powerful story about what music can do and how expressing emotions helps rebuild dignity. In contemporary society we tend to spectate the arts. However, if you roll up your sleeves and actively partake in them, then it is different. It is like that in Shakespeare: he wrote his plays 400 years ago, but if one points out to young people today that the character he depicts is just as valid now as then, they can see that the character is experiencing exactly what they are experiencing. Seeing that builds self-worth.”

One can see Kramer talking here a decade ago about Jail Guitar Doors. It’s inspiring stuff, and we look forward to following how it goes in this country. Lorenza’s hope is that, as the program progresses, she will be able to conduct surveys or case studies to determine its effectiveness in rehabilitation.

Linda Lorenza is Music Australia’s Councillor representing Opera and Music Theatre.

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