There But For Fortune

These days, it’s not always easy to keep up with what may or may not be against the law in this freedom- and justice-loving land of ours. Stand still long enough, and the law is only to apt to catch up with us … though that’s not quite the same thing. So I’m not sure I should admit this outside my own head, even now.

Once upon a time, a few ice ages back, I came terrifyingly close to committing a major felony. . Assault with a deadly weapon? Maybe attempted homicide. I was so damn mad at the time (in both senses) that it might easily have gone beyond redemption. I won’t rehash details, but it was no more than luck that the implement drawer was several steps away. That gave me just enough time … barely. A few precious seconds to regain a little control. Before I could grab our biggest, sharpest kitchen knife, and shove it as hard as I could into a living human body.

Big surprise — I still can’t imagine how I could ever come that close to doing such a thing, or what stopped me. Objectively, the whole thing took just seconds: from discovering a roommate’s minor thoughtless act … to a flash of overpowering rage … then starting toward the knife drawer … and finally standing very, very still, trying to stop shaking. I still get cold and queasy when I think about it. As you might expect, it was all unbelievably stupid, triggered by a trivial, commonplace aggravation … one meriting a thorough cussing perhaps, but nothing more. Since then, I’ve wondered how often this is true when violence happens.

I’ve wondered about a lot of shit since then, a whole tangled chain of “what-if” speculations. What the hell was wrong with me anyway — I’d had a tough couple of years at the time, with serious health changes, major stress, and so on. But so what, everybody has that. I thought I was an adult, capable of dealing with the world, as much as anybody else does. But at least for that brief time, I wasn’t coping worth shit.

We live and learn, when all else fails. I’ve come nowhere near doing such a monstrous thing at any other point in my life, before or since. But I try not to kid myself. We don’t want to think so, but no one of us is immune to disaster at any time. Over two million of our brothers and sisters have been less lucky than I was, and now they live a nightmare, trapped in our remorseless prison industrial complex. If it happened to us, could you and I survive prison? Could we stay sane, could we stay human? I do what I can to keep from ever finding out. But we never know.

With all the monumental problems in the world, programs like this can seem almost trivial, and I have no idea if this will help many people. But I hope so. Such creative outlets are surely healthier than destructive ones. I do know how essential music has been in my life, and I’m probably not the only one.


Rock guitarist’s music lifts jailhouse blues
William M. Welch, USA TODAY 4:01 p.m. EDT August 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES – Packed with inmates and beset by federal probes of prisoner abuse, the grim, concrete-gray Men’s Central Jail hardly seems a place for musical inspiration. But a rocker is showing them the way.
“When you’re playing music in the prison environment, you’re not in prison anymore,” says Wayne Kramer, 66, a long-ago rock guitar legend who spent two years behind bars at the federal prison in Lexington, Ky., on a drug conviction in the late 1970s.
Kramer, who gained fame as lead guitarist for the Detroit-based band MC5, has been venturing back behind iron bars since forming Jail Guitar Doors USA five years ago.
“It’s an escape, to be able to do something creative,” he said. “Music gives you a break from the relentless monotony.”
Since Kramer and his musical friends began showing up in June, a small group of inmates looks forward to that psychic escape every Tuesday evening at the massive county jail complex near Union Station.
“Just to hold a guitar in my hand is taking a lot of the stress of jail out,” Josh Box, who has been awaiting a year for trial, said. “It’s taking me out of here.”
It’s a non-profit organization that distributes acoustic guitars and other musical instruments for use by inmates. He and other musicians lead songwriting workshops and jam sessions with the aim of helping rehabilitate prisoners and giving them a positive outlet for expression. USA TODAY was allowed to sit in on a recent class, though jail guards barred photographs from being taken.
So far, the organization has launched programs in 50 jails and prisons, including Cook County Jail in Chicago and Travis County Correctional Complex near Austin, Texas. Next month they expect to begin a program in San Diego’s jail.
Only recently have they been allowed into Los Angeles’ jail complex. Including the adjacent Twin Towers jail, it houses nearly 20,000 inmates and is one of the largest, most notorious lockups in the nation: Six sheriff’s department employees were convicted July 1 of obstructing a federal probe into violence against inmates.
The American Civil Liberties Union calls the Men’s Central Jail “a windowless dungeon in downtown L.A. that has been plagued by a long-entrenched culture of savage deputy on-inmate violence.” Mother Jones magazine last year placed L.A. County jails No. 5 on its list of worst prisons in the nation.
Besides offering tips to inmates on music and life, Jail Guitar Doors gives Kramer an opportunity to make the case for prison reform, both to help inmates return to society and to reduce what he calls “hyper incarceration” laws and policies. By that he means fixed-sentencing laws, California’s three-strike mandatory life terms, heavy sentences for drug offenders, and massive public spending on locking up more violators, sometimes in for-profit prisons.
“The prison experience is devastating,” Kramer says. “It’s something I wasn’t prepared for – the sense of having to be vigilant for your own safety, of fearing for your own safety. All prisoners experience that.”
For two to three hours, participating inmates can forget that while working in small groups with a professional musician to write songs and compose and perform their music on Fender guitars and wooden cajon drums donated by the organization. Toward the end of the session, the 10 inmates gather with their mentors to perform for each other, hear suggestions and refine their pieces. Inmates write all the songs.
“This is our Friday night,” says Eric Roberts, 48, originally from Maryland, who is awaiting trial in a felony case. “This is as good as it gets.”
The idea was started by another rocker, Billy Bragg, who took musicians and instruments into British prisons. Kramer learned of it when they performed together in 2009 at Sing Sing, the New York state prison, and saw his calling. Bragg had borrowed the name Jail Guitar Doors from the title of a 1977 song by The Clash. Bragg asked Kramer if he knew it.
“Billy,” Kramer responded, “that song was about me.”
The opening lines recall what Kramer calls his descent to the gutter. “Have you heard about Wayne and his deals with cocaine?” goes the song written by the late guitarist Joe Strummer and band.
Yet Kramer developed as a musician while behind bars, mentored by jazz greats also locked up for drugs. His latest music project is a jazz album, Lexington, inspired by his time in that prison. It hit the top ten on Soundscan’s traditional jazz chart after release in April, according to Rolling Stone. He also scored a documentary, The Narcotics Farm, which the Lexington prison was once called.
In the L.A. jail, inmates earn their way into the program by taking education classes. Some are awaiting trial on relatively small charges up to murder, while others are serving sentences of several years. Because California’s prisons are overflowing, judges send some convicts to county jail to serve out felony sentences.
While their charges vary, drug use is the common thread. “I’m just a regular guy who got caught in drugs,” says Box, facing burglary counts.
In the relaxed mood of a guitar jam, inmates talk, laugh and give each other suggestions. Some bring lots of musical experience, others less. Much pain is expressed.
Lee Watkins, who came west from Chicago to pursue music and is now serving a felony sentence, belted out three of his own songs with a powerful voice. In one song of love lost, he sings, “She invited me to her wedding. I said if I came, I’d bring a machete,” drawing howls of laughter.
“Music calms people’s nerves,” Watkins says. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”


Here’s part of an interview with Wayne Kramer, in which he goes into more detail about Jail Guitar Doors.

And here’s the link for JGD’s website.


About l. l. frederick

I'm pretty ordinary, so I find any number of things in the world interesting, among them: books, music, flowers, food, social justice, politics and (sometimes!) people. As for my writing, I've decided that I can be subtle and tasteful when our only problems are esthetic ones. Or when I'm dead, whichever comes first. In the meantime, read at your own risk.
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14 Responses to There But For Fortune

  1. tubularsock says:

    Oh, Linda ……… Tubularsock sees it’s best not to get you upset. Tubularsock has logged that into his big log book of things not to do. Tubularsock’s plan is to hum a song all the time just in case!

    • Tubularsock, You know what they say — fear is a man’s best friend… Humming should work, as long as you avoid shit I don’t like. And after all, how many artists/songs could I possibly hate? (Somebody’s starting a pool on that one as I type … as a hint, if your guess is below a thousand, guess again.) Be that as it may, you’ll probably be okay anyway — I have blade guards on all my knives now, just in case. Thanks for your comment! – Linda

  2. Don’t worry, Linda, you’re probably already committing felonies daily by failing to honor the Terms of Services agreement you sign with various Internet service providers – under the 1986 Computer and Fraud and Abuse Act. This was the law they used to charge Aaron Schwartz with 13 felonies, which comes out in the recent documentary which you can view free on line:

  3. Such an honest and powerful story, Linda. It raises so many crucial issues. But the most important one is that we are all human. We are all more than actions we take when we just can’t deal with one more stressor. And if I think about the abuses I’ve witnessed in nursing homes or other institutions, I really can’t blame the staff who lost it. All of us can lose control. Do people deserve a life sentence or prison? If anyone does, it’s the bankers and corporate leaders who destroy people’s lives.

    But I still like the decision the Lakota came to in the case of Crow Dog. He killed a rival and his sentence was to care for his rival’s family for the rest of his life – to provide for them as he did his own. Even though the Supreme Court upheld the sovereignty in tribal law, Congress quickly enacted the Major Crimes Act of 1885 to impose US law and executed Crow Dog. The point is that the Lakota, like many other cultures, took time to recognize that each person has something valuable to contribute to the community, We are all much much more than one action. Isolating and punishing people doesn’t heal relations between parties in a dispute. And the loss of any community member harms the community in many ways. But the (in)justice system in the US is a logical outcome of cultures that view people as basically bad – born in original sin.

    I love the program you shared. It helps people give voice to the pressures that build up – to discover and use their gifts in constructive ways. It reminds me of the work Diane does with writing programs in prison. But it’s deeply troubling to me that (poor) people only have access to helpful programs after they end up in prison.

    Sorry for the long comment. 🙂 Thank you for having the courage and compassion to raise the issue and share this important intervention.

    • Carol, Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! Relevant thoughts are never too long, so no apology is needed, ever. (Who am I kidding? I rarely spurn tangential or irrelevant comments either. As you know, I have the best and brightest readers, who often [usually?] contribute more to a post than I do anyway — so bring it on!)

      I never heard that piece of Lakota history — no surprise, my ignorance is almost infinite. Given the dismal past — and present — between Europeans and native tribes in our hemisphere, sometimes I flinch away from learning too much about such history at a time, it can be too painful. But what a world we might make if only more of us can learn to understand, value and support one another! Maybe it would be more helpful to seek out original virtue rather than original sin? That will require a huge leap of compassion for so many of us, but if we can’t change how we view the world and its creatures, our species may well commit suicide. I’m nowhere near sufficiently kind and considerate yet, but I am trying, in my feeble way. Maybe more guitar practice will help … as long as no one has to listen to such cruel and unusual punishment. Again, I am so grateful for your generous and most thoughtful words. – Linda

      • Haa – guitar practice! I remember subjecting the poor residents in my mother’s nursing home to my guitar practice – singing for hours in the brick and concrete stairwell “fire escape” that led from the second floor. It was a great echo chamber. No one ever complained that I know of – but I was the boss’s daughter…

        But back to restorative justice, I’m not surprised few people know about Crow Dog and the Major Crimes Act: I wouldn’t know either if I hadn’t studied and taught Native American history for many years. It’s a hard topic for me to read about, too. In fact, when I work on the book on Indian child welfare I’m trying to write, I’m really not fit company too be around. The stories of what people suffered through as children in the context of a long history of unbelievable brutality make me angry and sad. It’s why I hide from proselytizers. It’s too easy for me to download all of that on people who unfortunately represent those times to me. I know what it’s like to be as angry as you were in days gone bye.

        Thank you, Linda, for creating a welcoming space for dialogue – tangential or otherwise 🙂

        • You are most welcome any time, Carol. I hope working on your book isn’t too painful, it sounds a most valuable effort, with the experience and insight you can bring to this subject. Can you wait until spring to devote more time to that project, so you can take garden breaks? At least I always find it helps to just get out and mess about with plants when I’m stressed or discouraged. (Especially since I don’t have a good practice stairwell handy.) Though perhaps I’m being unkind to the plants? If so, they seem a very patient and forgiving audience. I’ll try to snarl and swear a bit less in front of them from now on! – Linda

          • Yes, gardening is such a great way to balance – and I’m sure the plants love your music :-). (I talk to mine, and I had cosmos plants that were over 7 feet tall!)

            • Carol, Whoah! I’ve had six-foot cosmos, but never seven — I’m impressed! Of course, cosmos look sensitive, so naturally they would respond to your gentle encouragement. Now, my “dwarf” cannas often top six feet, and “3-foot” Mexican sunflowers always hit eight feet by summer’s end, but then those guys are tough enough to withstand some verbal abuse. Any ideas for the proper pep talk for roses, to stave off black spot? Neither Threats nor flattery seem to work with those thorny customers!

              • I’ve never had much luck with roses. I thought I might here, but the deer ate them the first 3 years. I tried again, but I need to wait until spring to see if they survived the winter. But, you might want to check out neem oil. It’s worked on mildew on lilacs and nine bark.( I put some in a spray bottle with a little Dawn detergent and spray the leaves.

                • Deer haven’t been much trouble in my yard, there’s so much noise and foot traffic about. But last summer at my mother’s … they decided her hostas were too big, and too numerous. Hosta stems must be tough and bitter, that’s about all they left standing. Yes, neem oil is the best thing I know, short of using serious toxins. But I’m never dilligent enough with re-spraying, my own laziness. But this year I’ll do better! I mean it this time. Thanks, and I hope your roses survive! I’m a big fan of the rugosa hybrids, if you can deal with all the thorns — they’re very hardy, some are really fragrant, and they can’t even stand chemical sprays or fertilizer. Of those I’ve had, Sarah van Fleet has done best for me, but these varieties are nice ones. – Linda

  4. Pingback: Readers of the World, Unite! | Take Heart!

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