Jail Guitar Doors – Week 1

Jail Guitar Doors – Week 1

I drove south for an hour. Record breaking heat in San Diego had cars all along the side of the freeway.  As I approached the border, the number of drivers around me dwindled.  Mexico was just ahead and the sun was starting to go down.  I turned west and proceeded until the road dead ended.  Heading north, a US Border Patrol Agent, decked out in the olive drab rough terrain uniform, pulled off a dirt path on his ATV and began following me.  I became acutely aware it was only me and him out there on the windy mountain two lane.   Up ahead was the George F. Bailey Detention facility.

I am not a stranger to performing music in correctional facilities.  Although I had a handful of gigs under my belt as a young guitarist, the prison tours of my early 20’s still felt like my real initiation to the life of a traveling musician.  I’ve tried to write about this experience in the past, but it never really captured what it felt like to be there.  My last time in a prison was around December 2004.  It was a Christmas Eve concert for inmates who had life sentences, but were too old and feeble to be housed in ‘gen-pop’.   You don’t understand the power of music until your notes and tones move men condemned to die alone smile and laugh on the night before Christmas.

Roughly eleven years and a few hundred thousand miles later, I found myself side by side with Rob Bird.  He runs the San Diego chapter of Jail Guitar Doors (JGD).  The volunteer program teaches music and guitar methods to prison inmates.  The program began in the UK, and in 2009, guitarist Wayne Kramer partnered with Billy Bragg to found Jail Guitar Doors USA.

In their own words:

“Jail Guitar Doors USA believes our country’s human and financial resources should be dedicated to education and ending poverty, the primary source of crime. We support public safety. We believe in accountability in a civilized society. We believe the punishment should fit the crime and that one is sentenced to prison as punishment, not for punishment. We believe in reform and that if we expect more of offenders and empower them with the necessary tools and resources they need to change, most will choose to change and not repeat offend. We work for better implementation of best practices in ways to treat non-violent offenders and minimize prison violence. We believe prisoners provided with the musical tools to create songs of their own can achieve a positive change of attitude that can initiate the work necessary to successfully return to life outside prison walls. Creating music, along with other educational and vocational programs, can be a profound force for positive change in a prisoner’s life. Our goal is to aid the ‘correctional’ aspect of corrections that can only come from a regenerated belief in ones future as a positive, contributing member of society.” ® Jail Guitar Doors USA.

Over the next 7 weeks, it my intention to chronicle my time with JGD in a 7 part series.  Today’s installment being the first of seven.   It is my goal to shed some light on the program.  JGD is a volunteer program.  Those who participate do not get paid.

I got there early and was waiting for Rob to arrive, because I didn’t know where I was going.  He had supplied some hand drawn maps, but I didn’t really want to start poking around gates during the middle of shift change.  I reposistioned my truck so I could watch the parking lot entrance.  A sheriff’s SUV pulled up and started watching me.  Instantly I remember a long forgotten lesson from the early prison tours.

Once I had left something in the tour van and headed out to get it before we went in.  It was a particularly freezing cold day, and I had my tuxedo on.  No problem, except I was running full sprint across the parking lot away from the jail.  I looked to my left and saw a perimeter vehicle turn on its lights and start rolling towards me.  I knew I had messed up, and walked the rest of the way.  This same lesson applied here.  My appearance suggested I was waiting for someone to show up and had a direct line of sight to get out quick if needed.

Relieved once Rob showed up, we loaded in and I had my first surprise of the night.  Jails are purposely designed to be crude and sterile environments.  As we checked in, there was a very beautiful young woman on the other side of the glass.  She was dressed in a colorful stretchy dress that showed her middle stages of pregnacy.  Oh and she had a very large rock one hand too.  It was the exact opposite of the surroundings.

We processed into the caged off classroom and arranged some of the chairs and desks.  I asked Rob if we needed to get the instruments out and tune them.  His reply was, ‘No. It’s all about them learning to take initiative and think for themselves.”  I began to understand more what this was all about.

The next surprise was when the inmates filed into the classroom.  They signed in with the standard golf sized pencils, and I noticed a few had to be close to my age.  One or two were younger.  When I was in the Federal corrections in the early 2000’s, I was always one of the youngest people in the room.  It was an odd feeling to interact with men my age who lives had lead them into different circumstances.

One of the inmates came in and immediately picked the guitar I had brought in for myself.  Oh well, I won’t make that mistake next time.  Most of the guys came in a paired up into groups of two and threes.  There was elder latino inmate who led a group of four men in Spanish.   They picked and plucked, forcing their fingers into the awkward shapes that all beginners know.  There were three inmate teaching assistants, graduates of previous 8-week courses taught by Rob, who helped the rookies.   After about 20 minutes, a brief lecture on song writing and song structure was given by Rob, then we went back to working one on one with the guys.

We worked on the bass line to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s hit ‘Crossfire’, G barre chords, and one student knew some old school Metallica.  It was Master of Puppets for those of you who ask.   After a short pause so qualified inmates could receive their medication, we were back to the cacophonous sounds of eighteen guitars going off in their own directions at the same time.  The night moved fairly quickly, and after ninety minutes the class session was over.

The load out was uneventful, and we walked past the senior watch commander.  His gaze was fiercely glued to what looked like a crushing horde of emails.  We were accompanied by another volunteer.  He was a retired auto mechanic, spoke well and was part of the religious outreach program.  A radiance of calmness and satisfaction emanated from him, and it recognizable from my earlier years of being involved in church.

Ironically, it was my time spent devouring the works Carl Sagan, The Dali Lama and other philosophical books on my early prison tours that formulated my basis for religious beliefs.  More accurately, that a person does not need to act, dress, or believe in any certain way to help another person. You just have to do it. It’s that simple.  If someone needs help, and you decide that you are going to take action, just do it.


All opinions expressed herein are that of the author and do not represent Jail Guitar Doors USA.


Copyright © 2015. C. Lougeay

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