Making Music Behind Bars At A Maryland Prison


I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Today we're bringing you a show we're calling House and Home. In just a bit we'll hear why a plan to create a more hospitable home for wild plants and animals is creating a bit of a stir, but first, we'll head out to Jessup, Md. A suburban town where you'll find a maximum security prison called the Patuxent Institution. Michael Martinez introduces us to a guitar player who's helping inmates learn how to cope when they return to their homes on the outside.


These are the sounds that define the early part of Wayne Kramer's life, the explosive guitar riffs he once played for the legendary rock band, The MC5. But these days, Kramer begins many of his gigs on a different note -- like one he played recently at the Patuxent Institution.


I am Wayne Kramer, and I am an alcoholic and a drug addict -- I'm a sober alcoholic and a clean drug addict. I'm known in the world mostly as a guitar player. But for a few years, I was known as zero-zero-one-eight-zero-one-nine-zero. And I was a federal drug war prisoner.


Kramer spent two of the prime years of his life locked up in a federal prison in Kentucky on drug charges. He still finds himself going in and out of American prisons. But what brings him behind bars now is a non-profit he started called Jail Guitar Doors USA, which donates guitars for inmates to use for rehabilitative therapy. He tells inmates they shouldn't see the guitars as gifts, that the people who donated them want offenders to know someone believes in them while they're in a place where it's easy to feel worthless.


They know you want to change for the better, that you want to come out and you're going to come out and you're going to rejoin your friends and family. You're going to rejoin us out in the world and you're going to live next door to me. And we want you to be part of the deal. We want you to be part of the world. We want you to participate in the world. And we know that music, and art in general, is one of the few things that can touch people in their heart, it can change you fundamentally.


Kramer treats the inmates at Patuxent to an intimate performance inside its library. Bookshelves and posters line the walls in what might pass for a Spartan junior high school reading room. But he plays one song, made famous by country singer and former San Quentin inmate Merle Haggard, that evokes classic jailhouse images.


Prison is a subject that comes up over and over again in the American songbook, from Lead Belly to Johnny Cash. Randall Nero is in charge at Patuxent. He says music should also be a part of how inmates change their behavior and ultimately return to society.


We really stress for the offenders the need to go ahead and engage in what I would say is pro-social behavior. And clearly, being part of the music program at Patuxent allows them to both develop an appropriate expression of their affect and also we have the group -- as their participation -- is pro-social behavior.


The inmates who come to hear Kramer are certainly social. They jump at an invitation to pick up their own guitars for a jam session. One inmate from Alabama in particular, turns every head in the room with his soloing ability. But Kramer makes it clear that his challenge to the inmates is to use the guitars for more than jamming. He wants them to tell their stories through music.


And the day's going to come where you're gonna be out and things aren't going to go your way. And you're going to have a choice to make. You could pick up your pistol, or you could pick up your guitar. I'm suggesting you try the guitar this time.


That message hits home particularly hard for Artis Bartholow, a 47-year-old inmate doing time on an armed robbery charge. He plays guitar in his cell every day at Patuxent. Where he says he's written dozens of song and intends to write more.


Songs like "Fallen Angels," which Bartholow wrote in 1999, when the mother of his son was struggling with drug addiction. He says the song has taken on new meaning for him now that he's incarcerated.


No matter your current situation you can do anything. I mean, anyone can do anything if you really want to do it and no matter -- you could be in jail. You could be on drugs. If you want to change yourself and turn things around, you can do it. I believe that.


Bartholow, who's played in bands before, has dreams of becoming a professional songwriter when he eventually gets out of prison. He keeps journals of lyrics and chord progressions, songs that not only tell his personal story, but also reflect hope. So it only makes sense that Bartholow sings right along with Kramer when he plays one of Bob Marley's most famous songs for the inmates at Patuxent. Of course, they all join, whether they know the words or not.


I'm Michael Martinez.


You can hear more of Artis Bartholow's original song, "Fallen Angels," on our website,
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