Billy Bragg Helps Reintroduce Guitars Into British Prisons

Billy Bragg performs on the Pyramid stage during day 3 of the 2013 Glastonbury Festival
Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Inmates in British jails can now strum away their sentences thanks to a campaign orchestrated by Billy Bragg.

The veteran musician and activist had pushed for a relaxing of a recent ban which meant prisoners couldn't play steel-stringed guitars outside supervised sessions. Those rules were introduced last November as part of a wider tightening of prisoners' privileges.

Cardiff West member of parliament Kevin Brennan first raised the issue in the House of Commons back in March after having received correspondence from prisoners disappointed they could no longer play guitar in their cells. Bragg offered his support, and the likes of the Smiths' Johnny Marr and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour soon came on board.

Billy Bragg Newly Crowned for 'Outstanding Contribution,' Vows He'll Never Quit  

This week, Brennan revealed the new prisons minister Andrew Selous had confirmed the guitar ban would be ditched. “This is a victory for common sense and I’m pleased after months of campaigning the U.K. government has listened,” he wrote on his website. “The power of music to help prisoners to rehabilitate is well documented.”

Bragg's fighting spirit is legendary. The singer-songwriter, who once addressed the British parliament wearing a Clash t-shirt, helped to set up Red Wedge in 1985; the loose umbrella organization brought together like-minded artists to campaign for the election of a Labour government.

He's also a firm believer that music can help rehab inmates. The Bard of Barking founded Jail Guitar Doors in 2007, an initiative that has sent guitars to 20 prisons -- some 350 instruments in all, according to the BBC (the project takes its name from the b-side of the Clash’s 1978 single "Clash City Rockers"). Jail Guitar Doors now has a sponsorship arrangement with Gibson Musical Instruments, which allows it to to extend its reach beyond the U.K.

Billy Bragg, Forever the Activist But Never A Luddite

"As an incentive to engage in rehabilitation individual access to steel strung guitars can really help the atmosphere on a prison wing," Bragg comments on the latest prisons ruling. "I've had a number of projects involving guitars on hold which now will be able to go ahead, and will allow those using music in prisons to get on with this important work."

Bragg later responded to those “critical of the provision of guitars in prisons - the instruments are not handed out to anyone who asks. They are used as a carrot to encourage inmates to engage in the process of rehabilitation, as the ministry of justice spokesperson makes clear at the end of his report.”