A heavy mechanical door shuts with a reverberant thud as three musicians, arms full of instrument cases, look silently and quizzically at the prison hallways ahead of them.
Another door slowly opens, allowing the group to advance into the next holding area, surrounded by security windows embedded with wire mesh. The second door locks behind them, and there is a pause before the third and final gate opens.
The representatives of Jail Guitar Doors – a national charity launching a local branch in Philadelphia’s Riverside Correctional Facility – step into the main hallway, sign in with a guard, and are shown into the gymnasium.
Leading the group is Wayne Kramer, a skinny man with a denim jacket, a closely-buzzed haircut and a big smile. He shows relatively little trace of the unhinged and rowdy guitarist he used to be a lifetime ago in legendary Detroit proto-punk band MC5. Kramer carries his own acoustic guitar in a hard case, plus about three donated ones in soft gig bags. Behind him, Keith Javors of local jazz label Inarhyme Records wheels a Rhodes keyboard, followed by Bob Whitt with his bass and amp. (I bring up the rear carrying three more donated acoustics, since arms are at a premium here.)
Settled in the gymnasium of the women’s wing of Riverside, Kramer notices an issue – a handheld microphone and PA system sit in the corner, but there’s no microphone stand. As a guard runs off to check for one, Kramer turns to his companions.
“You never know what you’re going to get coming in here,” he laughs. He reminisces about his visits to other prisons around the country with the program; sometimes he encounters spaces where he’s performing for inmates by himself with no setup and little guidance. Other times, the prisons are equipped, fully staffed and extremely helpful. Riverside definitely leans towards the latter – but when the guard returns, we learn that there is no mic stand to be had. Kramer decides to wing it as inmates are shown in.
Jail Guitar Doors’ mission is rehabilitation through music. Through donated instruments and volunteer music instructors from the local community, the program teaches prisoners the basics of songwriting and self-expression through music. “You gotta remember, these folks use music for the same reason we do,” Kramer whispers to his companions. “To keep us from blowing our tops.”
He turns and greets his audience – “I’m happy to be here.”
“I’m not,” one inmate deadpans.
“I don’t blame you,” says Kramer, and the group warmly chuckles. The tension is broken, and Kramer then goes on to tell his own backstory of drug dealing, addiction and incarceration, so well known in its day that The Clash wrote a song about him. He then flashes forward to a few years ago, seeing UK folksinger and activist Billy Bragg perform with a sticker on his guitar bearing the words “Jail Guitar Doors.”
“Hey, that song’s about me,” Kramer recalls saying to Bragg, who responded that it was actually a sticker for his England-based charity. This was 2009, and not too long after, Jail Guitar Doors USA was born.