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Guitarists Campaign for Guitars in Prison

guitars in prison

Should prison inmates be allowed guitars in prison or is this an unacceptable privilege?

A recent high profile campaign is trying to get guitars in prison.  A string of guitarists have recently written an open letter, published in the Guardian newspaper.  The letter is petitioning the UK government’s Minister of Justice Chris Grayling to keep musical instruments available to inmates of UK prisons.  The campaign aims to get steel string guitars back into the hands of prison inmates.

The letter, signed by stars such as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway seeks to get guitars in prisons and into the hands of UK inmates.  The campaign is being spearheaded by singer songwriter Billy Bragg who founded an initiative called Jail Guitar Doors in 2007.  He set-up the initiative to provide instruments for prison inmates to help rehabilitate criminals and break the cycle of repeat offending.  Bragg founded the initiative as a way of doing something positive to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of Joe Strummer.

On the Jail Guitar Doors website Bragg writes “I received a request from a local jail. Malcolm Dudley, a drug and alcohol counsellor at nearby Guys Marsh prison in Dorset, was utilising his skills as a musician to set up a guitar class as a means of engaging prisoners in the process of rehabilitation. Borrowing a guitar from the prison chaplain and repairing an old nylon-strung instrument found in a prison cupboard, Malcolm began to make progress with the inmates. However, he soon became aware that their development was being held back by the lack of available instruments on which to practise between sessions. He wrote to me asking for help”.

Bragg immediately grasped the potential of Malcolm’s work, knowing from his own experience how playing guitar and writing songs can help an individual to process problems in a non-confrontational way. He bought half a dozen acoustic guitars and, just as Joe Strummer had painted slogans on his guitar, had them spray-painted with the titles of Clash songs – ‘Clash City Rocker’, ‘Stay Free’ and, of course, ‘Jail Guitar Doors’.

Having seen the positive impact of the guitars Bragg decided to launch the Jail Guitar Doors initiative at the 2007 NME music awards.  The first person to pledge support to the initiative was Clash guitarist Mick Jones.  Since then Jail Guitar Doors have donated instruments to more than 20 prisons.

However, the aim to get guitars in prison has recently faltered due to a recent change to the prisoner privileges policy banning steel string guitars from prison.

The open letter penned by Dave Gilmour, Johnny Marr and 10 other musicians states that ” as musicians we are concerned to hear that the use of steel string guitars is being prohibited in prison”.  The letter continues “We believe music has an important role to play in engaging prisoners in the process of rehabilitation. However, this ability will be seriously undermined if inmates are unable to practice between group sessions.”

The musicians who signed the letter claim that the government’s push to keep nylon-string guitars available was impractical as musicians use different techniques on steel-string guitars. They felt the need to write the letter because the use of instruments had previously been up to the discretion of the staff.

“There has been a worrying rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in the period since this ruling was introduced,” they wrote. “Since October 2013, when only one death was reported, there have been a total of 50 self-inflicted deaths, over double the figure for the same period last year.

“We would like to know whether the recent changes to the treatment of prisoners – which includes restrictions on books and steel-strung guitars – could be at the root of this steep increase in fatalities,” they continued.

The letter ends by calling on Grayling to investigate the causes of prison suicides since the new policies went into effect. The musicians also want an explanation as to why steel-string guitars were “singled out for exclusion.”

You can find out more about the work of Billy Braggs initiative by visiting the Jail Guitar Doors website.

Let us know what you think.  Should there be guitars in prison.  Should inmates be allowed guitars in prison or is this an unacceptable privilege.

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