Wayne Kramer to AAN: Start a conversation about prison reform

Wayne Kramer, renowned guitarist with the MC5, addresses the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Detroit.

Stunned silence greeted Wayne Kramer’s opener during his address to upwards of a hundred editors, reporters and publishers gathered in the Venetian Ballroom of the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit this afternoon for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies convention.

“I injected heroin into my veins, snorted cocaine, drank gallons of wine, and had sex with dozens and dozens of young ladies,” said the 64-year-old activist, songwriter and film and television composer who played guitar in the legendary militant political rock and roll band the MC5.

The speaker paused to let the message sink in and someone in the audience half-heartedly shouted, “Kick out the jams!” – referencing the electrifying rallying cry at the beginning of the title track of the 1969 album by the MC5.

Kramer raised his fist in a militant salute and said, “I thought that would get your attention.”

He spoke of his idealism and grandiosity in the late 1960s, of his radicalization during a police riot that disrupted the innocence of a 1967 love-in at Belle Isle and of the movement to end the Vietnam war. He talked about his descent into nihilism and drug abuse as the MC5 fell apart, and about an eventual four-year federal prison sentence.

All that was to build to Kramer’s primary point.

“Today in America we’re facing the greatest failure of social policy in our domestic history,” Kramer said. “And that is mass incarceration. And this mass incarceration mostly falls on people of color and people of limited economic means.”

Kramer founded Jail Guitar Doors USA after recruiting friends such as Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, Gilby Clarke of Guns N’ Roses, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Don Was, Perry Ferrell and Billy Bragg to play a concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. 

Bragg had written “Jail guitar doors” on his guitar. He founded Jail Guitar Doors in England in 2007 to honor the late Joe Strummer of the Clash. Unbeknownst to Bragg, the Clash had written the song “Jail Guitar Doors” as a tribute to Kramer. 

Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of 
A little more every day 
Holding for a friend till the band do well 
Then the DEA locked him away 

Clang, clang go the jail guitar doors 
Bang bang, go the boots on the floor 
Cry cry, for your lonely mother’s son 
Clang clang, go the jail guitar doors

The MC5 had inspired the Clash, who, in turn, inspired Bragg, so the experience of playing Sing Sing with Bragg completed a circle for Kramer.

“We find people that work in corrections and see if they’re willing to use music as a tool for rehabilitation,” Kramer explained. “And we provide them with guitars. The guitars aren’t gifts. We don’t give them just to while away the time. The guitars are a challenge. People that donate the money to pay for these guitars are sending a message to people in prison. And that message is that they believe in you, that they believe you want to rehabilitate, that you want to rejoin your friends and family out here, that you want to come back and participate in the world and engage in the world in a positive manner, and that these guitars can be a first step.”

Kramer found in prison reform a commitment that fit with his personal history and core convictions. 

“And I found that it seemed to line up perfectly with my radical activism from the sixties, my sense of an ethical commitment to positive change and it fit in with what little we know about alcoholism and drug addiction,” he said.

Although Kramer does not go so far as to advocate prison abolition, he is a proponent of dramatically reducing the length of sentences and decriminalizing drugs so that prisons are not clogged with nonviolent drug offenders. His work with Jail Guitar Doors USA is focused on change at a person-to-person level, but he said ultimately a political or legislative solution is needed to fix the problem of mass incarceration. 

Kramer champions legislation proposed by two lawmakers: the National Criminal Justice Commission Act by US Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and the Youth Promise Act by US Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). Webb’s bill would study the United States’ criminal justice system with an eye towards comprehensive reform while Scott’s legislation would provide funding for coordinated prevention and intervention to stem youth violence in “communities facing the greatest youth gang and crime challenges.” 

“I want you to write stories about these,” Kramer charged the journalists in the Venetian Ballroom. “I want you to start this conversation. This is a conversation that needs to be in our national discourse. It doesn’t affect most of us because most of us don’t go to prison. But if you live in certain communities in America, everyone you know goes to prison. You live in a brown community, a black community you have an uncle, cousin or a brother who’s doing time. Everybody does time.”

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