Billy Bragg Takes on British Penal System over Guitar Ban

Posted on May 6, 2014 | by Jason Walsh

Is a ban on steel-string guitars in British prison cells leading to an uptick in inmate suicides? That’s what political folk-rocker Billy Bragg wants to know, as he and other prominent musicians are questioning the UK government’s tightened regulation of instruments in prisoners’ quarters.

The ban on steel-string guitars outside of prison-run practice sessions took effect last November, as part of changes to the UK penal system's “incentive and earned privileges” policy for prisoners. The change in rules, which also effects whether prisoners receive books, does allow for nylon-string guitars for the prisoners.

But the politically charged Bragg says the new policy is way out of tune with reality.

Bragg has helped supply hundreds of steel-string guitars to British prisons since 2007, when he launched his Jail Guitar Doors initiative—a rehabilitation campaign (named for a well-known Clash song) to supply acoustic guitars to prisons with the goal of helping convicts alleviate their aggression while incarcerated, and teach them musical skills they can use after release.

Bragg says the allowance of nylon-string guitars does little to help the situation, since they don’t string properly to guitars designed for steel strings, which comprise the vast majority of the guitars his campaign has supplied.

In a letter published in the Guardian newspaper—also signed by musicians Johnny Marr, David Gilmour, Richard Hawley and Seasick Steve—Bragg questions the logic behind the new regulations.

“As musicians, we are concerned to hear that the use of steel-strung guitars is being prohibited in prisons,” the letter begins. “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 letter concedes that “there must be security protocols” regarding steel-string guitars but until the recent ruling, prisoner access had been at the discretion of staff.

The letter goes on to question whether the ban on guitars can be linked to the sudden rise in prisoner suicides.

“There has been a worrying rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in the period since this ruling was introduced,” the letter states, adding that the 50 prisoner suicides since October is more than 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.”

Bragg later told the Guardian that he’s seen, first hand, the positive impact the guitars have had. “There's never been to my knowledge,” said Bragg, “an incident in a British prison where someone has been attacked with a steel string guitar. It makes no sense – where’s the logic behind this? Where’s the thinking behind this?”

To see what it’s all about, check out the above clip of Bragg and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello launching a Jail Guitar Doors program at the Travis County Correctional Complex in Austin, Texas in 2010.

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