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Jail Guitar Doors: Rob Bird’s Musical Prison Quest

Rob Bird

Rob Bird


Blues musician Robin Henkel provides instruction (faces blocked to protect inmates' identity)

Blues musician Robin Henkel provides instruction (faces blocked to protect inmates’ identity)

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 words to the 1977 punk rock song have more impact sung by its writer, the Clash’s Joe Strummer. The B-side references MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and his imprisonment for cocaine possession—then spends, in typical Clash fashion—a verse each decrying the certification of early Fleetwood Mac guitarist Peter Green as insane (for not wanting fame or money) and the treatment of an addicted Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones by his friends while waiting for trial for a drug bust.

For Rob Bird and others involved in Jail Guitar Doors USA, it was the spark that caught fire decades later, inspiring a movement with a goal to rehabilitate people in prison through music in tandem with working for justice and prison reform.

Bird had plenty of exposure to the criminal justice system, but from the other side. A guitar player and an “adopted local” originally from Virginia, he has been working as a computer expert for the District Attorney’s office for nearly two decades.

“So, that’s how Jail Guitar Doors was on my radar to begin with. About four and a half years ago, I was at a music event in North Park and I encountered Wayne Kramer, and sat down and listened to him give a presentation on his background and what he’s been doing to give back to his community. He’s the successful founder of the MC5. He started talking about being locked up the 1970s for drug possession and distribution, and how during his incarceration he had reconnected with music.

“Fast forward in life and he is a recovering alcoholic wanting to give back to the community, so he organized a concert in Sing Sing prison. At that concert, one of the people he invited was [British activist and singer] Billy Bragg. Unbeknown to Kramer, Bragg had started a charity in 2007 in the UK called Jail Guitar Doors, and Wayne saw the sticker on Bragg’s guitar case and asked him ‘What’s that about?’”

Bragg explained about the song as well as lyrics that included mentioning Kramer and his earlier cocaine problems; he realized, “Oh, Wayne, that’s you!” After learning more from Bragg, an interested Kramer got busy setting up what, in 2009, became Jail Guitar Doors USA.

At their San Diego meeting, Kramer told Bird about the work he’d done, going into prisons, taking donated musical instruments and doing a music program focused on rehabilitating the inmates.

“That appealed to me, I guess, because from the side of the criminal justice system that I was on—I didn’t think I was making much of a positive impact overall, and I wanted to do something useful in terms of giving back with my time. So, Kramer threw down the gauntlet and asked if I wanted to start the San Diego chapter of Jail Guitar Doors.”

After a balky start, a contact with the Sheriff’s department led to the first workshop being kicked off at the San Diego County Jail’s East Mesa Reentry Facility in Otay Mesa in August 2014. The non-profit was up and running, but needed some fine tuning.

“The instruments are provided to the Sheriff by a grant from the Fender Foundation, 12 brand new acoustic guitars, with cases—Wayne Kramer is a Fender-sponsored artist. I have been slowly augmenting the guitars with electric pickups and headphones to enable the students to hear themselves individually.”

The students are trustees at the facility, meaning they all have jobs there and are screened by counselors. The 12-student classes are an eight-week course of 90-minute lessons. Their goals include learning about the guitar and beginning songwriting, but there is more.

“It’s really about non-violent expression. Creative expression that they largely haven’t had up until now.

“Most have never had a guitar in their hands before; when I find those who have had experience I usually try to turn them into teaching assistants to leverage their knowledge. One of the ways the program works best is when inmates teach inmates. It is amazing to see an African-American inmate teaching an Aryan Brotherhood member. It can happen.”

Bird found that the program needed a workbook, and created one of his own, a 32-page booklet that includes the mission statement of JGD, plus chord charts, a guitar diagram and scales, several song tabs, and some stories—including one by local musician, author, and frequent Troubadour contributor Jon Kanis. The students also get a tuner and a capo; the classes are held in a room with large visual aids. The songs in the workbook seem to tell a tale; they include simple versions of “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion, which tells a tale of a life in ruins due to alcohol; Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me,” focusing on the willingness to turn to others for help in times of need; and the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” a song of hope and redemption “in times of trouble.”

“The students vary in age from 22 to 70. For some, what they will learn is that they will never be a guitar player, but for others it is giving them a foundation that they can build upon.” Bird says that one of the biggest adjustments he notices is that many of the students are afraid to do something wrong.

“In music there are some rules, but they’re mostly guidelines. There is creative license. It is important to instill a sense of freedom, to draw them out into new territory. Making a personal connection with people through music is the key. As long as you are authentic, there is almost always a positive take-away.”

The music that is taught crosses all style and genre lines. Traditional favorites immediately come to mind, like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, but more modern sounds are of interest as well. Instructors who demonstrate techniques like flamenco strumming and picking find a rapt audience. As for those wondering about guitars being an issue in jails, Bird indicates that in many larger prisons, prisoners are not only allowed the instruments but are sold them inside and allowed to keep them in their cells.
The challenge, as with many charity endeavors, has been recruiting instructors. Bird has a core group of five teachers, though his program could easily expand with more teachers.

“Anyone who is over 18 and can pass the Sheriff’s background check can participate—provided they can make the time commitment.” The curriculum is suggested but varies depending on the volunteer and inmate skill levels and interests. There are also guest artists.” These include local blues guitar master Robin Henkel.

“After I made a direct contact with Robin, he did a presentation and I was immediately hooked. He felt there was nothing like the audience response.” This is a reaction that Bird echoes. “When you see the look on an inmate’s face, you will begin to understand.”

The program is monitored by the Sheriff’s department, with an eye on student outcomes. Feedback on the first two-year phase has not yet been received, but that hasn’t held back Bird from ambitious future plans.

“I need bodies to distribute the commitment. It’s an entirely volunteer organization.” The current program offers only “karma” for payment to teachers, though they are escorted, and educated on safety during orientation. The only restrictions are the background check and not knowing any of the inmates.

With enough staff, future plans include expansion to the Juvenile Facility, a location for harder core offenders in Otay Mesa. Also, Las Colinas Women’s Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee is a goal of the program. The Donovan State Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is a State prison—which comes with its own bureaucracy—but is not only a favorable target for JGD expansion, but one that is eager for such programs, and has built a new music room.

Bird sees JGD as part of a larger mission.

“Giving someone a start as a singer/songwriter is a chance to see someone pick up the tools to someday tell their own story. It is a new and non-confrontational way to express themselves. To make positive changes in their lives.” On a larger view, the organization also takes a firm stance.

“Jail Guitar Doors USA believes our country’s human and financial resources should be dedicated to education and ending poverty, the primary source of crime. We support public safety. We believe in accountability in a civilized society. We believe the punishment should fit the crime and that one is sentenced to prison as punishment, not for punishment.”

“Creating music, along with other educational and vocational programs, can be a profound force for positive change in a prisoner’s life. Our goal is to aid the ‘correctional’ aspect of corrections that can only come from a regenerated belief in one’s future as a positive, contributing member of society.”

Rob Bird’s contributions to Jail Guitar Doors have been considerable, and he has seen it take root locally. Few endeavors seem more worthwhile, and with time and greater participation, it will continue to change the lives of many.

One Comment

  1. Posted February, 2017 at 3:28 PM | Permalink

    How wonderful! Thanks for shining a light on Jail Guitar Doors! Rob has made an immense contribution to the San Diego area and we love him!

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