Can You Play Guitar In Prison?

I confess, I am a fan of guitar-playing singer/songwriters, and I even went so far as to follow Dave Matthews Band around the country during the summer of 2003. What a fantastic few months!

While learning how to play the guitar can benefit your dating life – or even lead to a successful career – many people don’t realize how it can be beneficial for your mental health. Music therapy has been a growing field in recent years, and the power of arts programs in schools can’t be understated.

If it works in the realm of education, could learning how to play the guitar help an inmate who is stuck in prison for years? Do prison inmates even have access to musical instruments? It’s time to talk about today’s blog post: Can you play guitar in prison?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Can you have musical instruments in your cell?
  • Are there music programs in prison?

Can you have a musical instrument in your cell?

I’ve said before that nothing in prison is universal, and that is definitely the case when it comes to musical instruments. We did have an arts program in the prison I was in, but I wasn’t aware of any music programs or instrument classes.

However, many states do offer music programs and allow you to buy an instrument from a vendor-approved catalog. Or, some prisons accept musical instrument donations. Some prisons do allow inmates to have their instruments in their cell, but it just depends on the warden and the specific facility rules.

Are there music programs in prison?

As a rule, yes there are music programs in prison. Usually, these are volunteer-driven programs, so they do vary based on the facility. Music programs can range from a prison choir to individual instrument classes. Some states are going all in on their music and arts programs because they have seen such success. 

In California, they have expanded their prison arts program because it has been proven to help recidivism. The music equipment nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors is run by Wayne Kramer, and he teaches inmates how to play guitars with donated instruments. 

“It was almost like a caveman trying to figure out what a cell phone is,” recalls CRC inmate Christopher Bisbano of his first class, laughing. “They were holding it and spinning it around…” To see these gangbangers holding these guitars, not being able to play and just pulling on the strings—there’s some magical power that’s unleashed through this art. It’s almost like immediate healing starts to take place.”

Bisbano explained that the arts programs like Jail Guitar Doors and The Actors Gang Prison Project have helped him stay off drugs, and it encourages good behavior. In fact, he was able to get released five years early because of his good behavior as a result of prison arts programs.

Bisbano said learning the arts was validation, and it gave him a sense of worth. He explained that when he went to prison, everything he loved and all of his contributions as a human being had been stripped away. But, being able to participate in music gave him purpose, inspiration, and something to look forward to.

The California Arts-In-Corrections (AIC) program is a partnership between the California DOC and the California Arts Council. They offer numerous music programs throughout their facilities, and they range from Afro-Cuban drumming to hip-hop. They also offer theater, sculpture, creative writing, painting, and poetry.

The program aims to reduce recidivism, support rehabilitation, and create a safer environment inside of prison, which also helps cut costs for the taxpayer. 

In 2017, California rolled out a month-long arts program expansion into all of their adult facilities, and that made it the first state-funded program of its kind in the United States.

Studies show that after California implemented their AIC program, participating inmates had 75 percent fewer disciplinary actions. They were 27% less likely to reoffend after they were released. 

The studies also show that the psychological impact is even greater. AIC’s music programs positively impact the inmate’s ability to manage their emotions and work with others. The data also shows that inmate’s showed better critical thinking skills, self-discipline, and a sense of self worth.

“I’ve seen two guys trying to kill each other on the yard, and then the same two will be sitting six inches from each other, one on guitar, the other one rapping,” Bisbano says. “In prison, it’s a sign of weakness to show emotion. But if you put a guitar in a guy’s hand, the very first thing he does is smile. Prison life is ordered around two things: drugs and violence. But now it’s centered on something else. It’s expression, healing.”          

Do you think music therapy should be available in prison? Let us know in the comments below.


How Music Is Keeping People From Going Back To Prison

Prison Bars And Guitars

California Arts-In-Corrections Music Program

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