Wayne Kramer’s songs seemed to touch everyone in his Otay Mesa audience this week. It didn’t matter if they were male, female or transgender; black, white or brown; bank robber, burglar or murderer.
“Part of our mission is to put a human face on prisoners,” said Kramer, 69, a veteran rocker and co-founder of Jail Guitar Doors, a nonprofit that brings live music to inmates.
“They are not just numbers or crimes or bed spaces.”
Friday’s visit to Donovan state prison was the 100th behind-bars presentation in the nine-year history of Jail Guitar Doors. About once a month, Kramer and several musician friends visit a prison or county jail, perform maybe a half dozen songs, then leave a dozen Fender acoustic guitars.
Kramer encourages prisoners to sign up for guitar classes and enlists local musicians to teach the 10-week course.
At Donovan, Kramer’s visit drew an SRO crowd to the gym in Echo Yard, a new facility for 792 inmates, most of whom have been imprisoned for decades.
Kramer himself has served prison time, interrupting a promising career that began in 1964 as guitarist for a rising Michigan band, MC5. His conviction for selling cocaine to undercover narcotics agents inspired a 1975 song by the seminal punk group, the Clash.
“Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine
“A little more every day
“Holding for a friend till the band do well
“Then the D.E.A. locked him away
“Clang clang, go the jail guitar doors…”
After sharing his background with his audience, Kramer was approached by a prisoner.
“That Clash story,” said the prisoner. “Is that for real?”
“It’s for real,” Kramer said.
For his cause, Kramer borrowed the Clash’s song title: “Jail Guitar Doors.”
Decades after his brief incarceration, Kramer was asked to join a group performing inside New York’s Sing Sing Prison.
“I didn’t know what to do except play,” he said. “But it always meant a lot to me when I was prison when people would come in and perform.”
That was nine years ago, when he played Sing Sing. He’s been singing to prisoners ever since.
Lean and sporting a three-day stubble, Kramer doesn’t have all the answers to crime and punishment. “I believe in the rule of law and being accountable for your actions,” he said. “But the way we deal with that in this country is medieval.
“We lock people up in these concrete gulags, sometimes for decades, in an atmosphere of bitterness, racism and violence — and then we let me out and expect them to go out into the world and participate in civic life.”
A better solution, he insisted, is to educate prisoners, provide them with tools to make a living, to create, to express their hopes and triumphs, disappointments and frustrations.
With music, say.
“I love music,” said Joshua Nichols, 37, a native San Diegan and convicted murderer who has been incarcerated since 1999. “I’m not very musically inclined, but it piqued my interest when I heard there would be guitar classes.”
His years in prison, Nichols said, gave him a new goal: “To try to inspire people to do something positive.”
Echo Yard is better equipped to meet that goal than most prison yards. Besides a sports program — basketball, football, soccer — there’s a fledgling music department. The instruments, like the musicians here, are locked away, only brought out for classes in rap, rock and gospel.
Classes, like the yard’s dorms, are racially integrated, defusing tensions that could erupt in violence.
“When you live with each other,” said Glenn Jefferson, 63, “you get to know each other as people.”
Jefferson is serving a 25-to-life term for unarmed bank robbery in 1979. During his years in federal and state correctional institutions, he’s written poetry and a few songs.
“But I know two chords,” he said. “That’s it.”
He’s eager to expand his musical skills. “We’ll not only be able to communicate with people on the outside, but also soothe our own souls.
“A lot of us,” he said, “lose some of our humanity in here.”
One of the songs Kramer selected for his Donovan set was Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Coming out of prison is tough, Kramer said, as is the self-emancipation Marley preached. Kramer recalled being baffled by his first post-prison visit to a supermarket.
“All those choices!” he said.
Kramer is now a successful composer of music for TV and movies (HBO’s “Eastbound and Down,” “The Big Short”). Still, he warned his audience, bad days await everyone, no matter what their careers or living conditions.
Then it’s important to reach for something creative instead of destructive.
With music, say.
“It might be the key that unlocks your cell door,” Kramer said. “It might be the key that unlocks your prison door. It might be the key that unlocks your life.”