Rock stars hope their music will help change prison inmates
POSTED: Sunday, July 8, 2012 - 7:00pm
UPDATED: Sunday, July 8, 2012 - 7:04pm
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — In the middle of the Southern California desert, where the sun’s sweltering heat is sometimes painful, 600 inmates step out of their cells and into a moment of freedom.
If Johnny Cash were here, he’d probably tell you that when you're stuck in the Lancaster State Prison, time keeps draggin’ on.
It is nothing less than that for these men.
Lancaster is a maximum security prison.
Most of the men in the Honor Yard are there because they sign a contract – no drugs, no violence – in which they promised to be model inmates.
Even so, most of them will never walk out of this prison alive.
Daniel Whitlow was sentenced to life without parole for a double homicide in Long Beach in 1998.
Ken Hartman was 19 when he arrived.
Now in his 50s, he’s learned to live with the fact he’ll never see the outside again.
They are just two of the thousands a local nonprofit group, Jail Guitar Doors, hopes to touch through music at the prison.
Jail Guitar Doors is named after a song written by the popular band “The Clash” in the 1970s.
The song was an homage to a fellow musician named Wayne Kramer from the rock band MC5.
Kramer was arrested in 1976 and sentenced to four years in federal prison for selling drugs to an undercover FBI agent.
Thirty years later, he’s taking his past and helping those just like him work on their future.
Kramer partnered with singer-songerwriter Billy Bragg -- who first created a Jail Guitar Doors in England in 2007 -- to found a Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2009.
Jail Guitar Doors provides musical instruments and opportunities to rehabilitate prisoners.
Kramer calls it the "the loudest charity on earth," and he proves it when he takes his fingers and touches his electric guitar and those notes fly.
Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, probably best known for her 1995 song "I Kissed a Girl," is now a contributor to Jail Guitar Doors.
"In prison, we always think of it as punishment," Sobule said. "But we forget the rehabilitation and redemption."
Joining Sobule is newly crowned Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer (Class of 2012) and Guns N' Roses drummer Matt Sorum, who says music is a way to help connect emotions.
"When I’m down and, out, happy or sad, whatever, I always go to the music. We all do," says Sorum. "It’s a common thread between all of us."
Inmate Whitlow says music has made his time bearable in prison.
He leads up the prison band with donated instruments.
"Being in prison sucks," says Whitlow. "It’s miserable. I grieve my freedom every day. So when I can come here and scream my lyrics, it lessens it."
When Guns N' Roses guitarist Gilby Clarke performs "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" for the inmates, they sing along.
"There are victims connected to this too and we realize that," says Clarke, "but we’re just doing our part to give them hope, something different to think about."
Kramer and his wife run Jail Guitar Doors from a Los Angeles office.
He says when he sees the men behind the chain-linked fence, he sees himself.
"Half of them are non-violent drug offenders like me," he says. "If we don’t help people change for the better while they’re incarcerated, they will change for the worse."
For Kramer, it’s personal.
He says he's connecting his new life with those still struggling with their old.
Rolling Stone Magazine has listed Kramer as one of the top 100 guitarists of all time.
He's just hoping his influence in music will influence inmates to end the cycle of taking -- and begin a cycling of giving.
"Most people in prison today are going to come out some day," Kramer says, "and who do I want to live next door?"