MC5's Wayne Kramer on Prison Reform and Jail Guitar Doors Benefit

This year's show in L.A. features Shooter Jennings, Don Was, Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Sobule and more.

The MC5's Wayne Kramer will take the Ford Theater stage tonight (Sept. 9) in Los Angeles alongside Shooter Jennings, Gilbey Clarke, Marshall Crenshaw, Jill Sobule, Keith Morris, Don Was, Jason Heath & The Greedy Souls and The Wild Reeds for the Rock Out 3 concert, a benefit for Jail Guitar Doors, the prison-reform organization Kramer has worked with for several years. Kramer feels lucky to be there at all.

"I'm a returned citizen," Kramer says, "I served a federal prison term." In 1974 the Detroit native was part of a drug sting, supposedly the result of his and his bandmates' connections to political activism the White Panther party, by the federal government, which resulted in a four-year prison term. Kramer says the prison term he received for procuring a pound-and-a-half of cocaine for an informant with a briefcase full of of $100 bills would have ended with a life sentence today.

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Like millions of other non-violent-drug offenders, Kramer served under harsh conditions with no personal safety, scant edible food or decent health care. 

Lucky, at least, that he served his time alongside Red Rodney (a.k.a. Robert Roland Chudnic), a trumpet player for Charlie Parker who Kramer says "was a great man and an unbelievable musician," and who became his mentor and "musical father."

After his release, Kramer wanted to work on issues of justice and prison reform. So in 2008 he gathered a group of legendary musicians -- including Tom Morello, Don Was, Jerry Cantrell, Handsome Dick Manitoba, Don Was, Gilby Clark, Perry Farrell and Billy Bragg -- to perform at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in upstate New York. While there, Bragg told Kramer about a project he had started in his native England called Jail Guitar Doors, which provided prisoners with instruments. Serendipitously, the organization's name had come from a Clash song that Joe Strummer -- a patron saint of sorts to Jail Guitar Doors -- had written in homage to Kramer. It begins with the lyric: "Let me tell you 'bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine." 

Then and there, Kramer decided he would head up the prison reform group's U.S. branch.

Since it inception, Jail Guitar Doors has lobbies against overly long prison terms, the privatization of prisons for profit and, more elementally, a restoration of humanity. The organization has since donated guitars to over 65 American prisons and has run songwriting workshops in county jails across the country, including in Los Angeles, San Diego, Cook County (Chicago) and Travis County (Austin).

"We are the most prison-crazed country in the history of the world," the outspoken Kramer says. "We have five percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners." He attributes much of the prison crisis to politicians who parlayed being tough on crime into votes, which he says led to the ineffective war on drugs. "It's the greatest failure of social policy in America's history," Kramer says, "They locked up more people and did great harm to communities across the country. Meanwhile today we're amidst the greatest drug crisis in history where you can buy more drugs cheaper than you could 30 years ago when all of this started."

When asked if he's at all encouraged by recent government efforts to clamp down on private prisons and the Obama's administration's release of 111 non-violent drug offenders, Kramer is cautious. "Well, these are good symbolic steps," he says, "But we are nowhere near justice and I don't think I'll see that in my lifetime. It's like turning the Titanic -- this is an $80 billion a year industry. People like to say the justice department is broke, but it's not, it's a big hit -- it's number one with a bullet."

Tickets for tonight's benefit are still available.at www.jailguitardoors.org .