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How Music Is Keeping People from Going Back to Prison

An expanding California arts program is proven to cut recidivism and save prisons money. Can it be a new model for prison reform?

by Andrea Domanick
07 February 2017, 11:42pm

By the time Christopher Bisbano had saved up enough money to buy the flimsy nylon string guitar the former musician had been saving up for in prison, he was too strung out and depressed to play it. More than a decade into his 23-year attempted murder sentence at the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco, California, Bisbano's resolve to get clean and return to his family had withered along with his 6'6" frame, which, after nearly four combined years in solitary confinement, bowed in at 168 pounds.

"You start to feel like an animal," says the 49-year-old Bisbano, adding that at one point, he went 16 months without stepping outside his cell. "It's an environment where the culture is defined by humans and inmates. I'd purposely drop my food tray so they'd give me a second one, and eat the food off the floor later. After awhile, you start to believe that that's what you're worth."

Then he met MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who arrived at CRC in 2009 looking to expand his music equipment nonprofit, Jail Guitar Doors. Kramer asked Bisbano if he'd be interested in teaching a class. A few weeks later, Bisbano sat at the head of an abandoned substance abuse counseling room, surrounded by 14 inmates cradling donated guitars.

"It was almost like a caveman trying to figure out what a cell phone is," Bisbano recalls, laughing. "They were holding it and spinning it around and looking at it like, 'Holy shit, this thing makes noise!'. 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."

The same went for Bisbano himself. His work in the music classes and a theater-based program called The Actors Gang Prison Project helped him stay off heroin, and his initiative among the inmates and a good behavior record allowed him to get out five years early.

"It was validation—it gave me a sense of worth," he says. "Everything I had ever loved or felt like I could contribute as a human being had been stripped away. But now that I was able to participate in music, I had a purpose. Inspiration. It was something to look forward to."

Photo courtesy Wayne Kramer

Released July 11, Bisbano is still playing, returning to prison less than six months after he left a Jail Guitar Doors member and an instructor with The Actors' Gang. He's one of numerous inmates to benefit from California's Arts-in-Corrections program (AIC), a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Arts Council. Jail Guitar Doors is just one of several music programs offered through AIC, ranging from composing to Afro-Cuban drumming to hip-hop to theatrical sound design to guitar building. Beyond music, AIC's umbrella of multidisciplinary offerings includes theater, painting, sculpture, creative writing, poetry, and more. The program aims to reduce recidivism, support rehabilitation, and create a safer environment within state prisons—and help keep public costs down in the process. In February, AIC will roll out a month-long program expansion into all 34 of the CDCR's adult institutions, making it the first state-funded program of its kind in the country to do so.

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Correctional arts education offers more than creative ways for inmates to pass the time. Studies of AIC's first incarnation found that participating prisoners had 75 percent fewer disciplinary actions, and were up to 27 percent less likely to reoffend upon release. Programs like The Actors' Gang report recidivism rates as low as 10.6 percent, compared to a statewide rate of around 50 percent, one of the highest in the country.

The psychological impacts go deeper. Recent studies of both AIC's music programs and its services as a whole found a significant positive impact on inmates's abilities to manage their emotions and work with others, the challenges of which can factor into why many of these men and women end up in the system to begin with. Data also points to improved critical thinking, self-discipline, and a sense of self-worth, in addition to incentivized participation in other rehabilitative programs, like education and vocational training.

Video courtesy the Marin Shakespeare Company

Those ties can be critical in an environment where prisoners are often pitted against each other within the deeply ingrained racial and cultural divides of prison society. A 2016 study of Jail Guitar Doors participants found that 41 percent reported improved relationships with both staff and fellow inmates, and 69 percent reported a reduction in disciplinary actions.

"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."

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Launched in 1980, AIC has been considered the best practices model for other states with larger-scale correctional arts programs, like New York. But overcrowding and budget cuts brought on by revolving-door sentencing weakened the program throughout the 00s, and it was shut down completely by 2010.

As policy changes worked to undo unconstitutional overcrowding brought on by the state's infamous Three Strikes Law and others, and the remaining population shifted towards those serving long-term or life sentences, society began to change as well. Amidst that realignment, lawmakers realized a greater need—and greater interest from the inmates themselves—for rehabilitative programs, prompting the Department of Corrections to add "Rehabilitation" to its name in 2005.

"People realize that if you give an inmate something positive to do, if you teach a skill, if you let them participate in a program that results in some self-reflection, then you're going to have a safer prison for both inmates and also for the staff," says CDCR Public Information Officer Kristina Khokhobashvili. "So the department realized [AIC] is a way to put its money where its mouth is."

AIC was revived in 2014 as a two-year pilot program, and considered so successful that it was adopted as an ongoing program last year, receiving $6 million in funding from the state. That's allowed programs like Jail Guitar Doors, which donates musical equipment and offers songwriting workshops to inmates, to hire dedicated paid staff members for the first time in its nearly ten-year history.

"States have realized that even on a fiscal level, they can't sustain the numbers of people that they've been locking up over the last 30 years," Kramer says. "Just from that perspective, I think they'll continue to find ways to reduce prison populations."

Photo by Peter Merts

Jail Guitar Doors USA was launched in 2009 as a partnership with Billy Bragg's UK-based program of the same name. The name itself borrows from the 1978 Clash song "Jail Guitar Doors," about Kramer's 1975 arrest and subsequent prison sentence for selling cocaine to undercover federal agents. Today, the program operates in 75 facilities across six states, enlisting academics, professional musicians, and bonafide rock stars like Tom Morello and Perry Farrell to help inmates express themselves through bands, rapping, production, and more. Last summer, the program even teamed up with Prophets of Rage for a performance at a Sacramento prison.


"You'd be surprised at how the same script is repeated over and over and over again in people's stories. So it's remarkable the change you can see in someone when they can see themselves as more than a crime or a number or a bed space," Kramer says. "Creating art is a great argument against that worthlessness. It's making something where before there was nothing."

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As AIC continues its rollout in California this month, the expansion marks a modest step towards reforming a long-embattled system. Overall funding for rehabilitative services has increased, but AIC's $6 million boost culls from the CDCR's total budget of $10.5 billion. That's the fourth highest budget in the state, with $7.5 billion of it going to the salaries and benefits of department employees. The fact that the growth of a common sense program like AIC is both unprecedented and considered a triumph underscores how broken state prison systems have been and remain.

Despite those challenges, California's expanded AIC program stands to be a new, cost-effective model for other states to follow. Unlike California, states with similar services tend to be spearheaded by nonprofits and volunteer groups, rather than as a direct service offered by the state, and therefore can be limited in the number of prisoners and locations they reach.

Moreover, many of those groups and related research are funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts; as the Trump administration threatens to gut the agency, state-backed support like California's may become critical to the survival of these programs in other states.

Photo by Peter Merts

"You can't make an inmate participate or learn. But every time an arts grant opens up, boom—there's a waiting list, or the class is full,"Khokhobashvili says. "But most of these facilities are difficult to get to and in more remote places. They can't get programs out of the goodness of people's hearts. By funding the programs, we can require that the Arts Council will find providers in more populations to serve underserved prisons."Forty-eight states currently offer prison arts programs of some kind, according to the Prison Arts Coalition. A summary published in 2015 of national programs offered in federal prisons doesn't include any programs focused primarily on art. Kramer says his attempts to bring JGT to federal prisons have thus far been shut down. Still, he remains optimistic about scaling his and other programs to a national level.

"I ultimately would like to work myself out of a job," Kramer says. "I'd like to see Arts-in-Corrections return to every correctional facility in the country, and 100 percent effort put into helping people understand what went wrong so they never come back to those places."

Bisbano is just one of countless others helping him get there. Less than two months after being released, Bisbano joined Kramer at LA's Ford Theater for a benefit concert, performing as a special guest alongside stars like Guns N' Roses's Gilby Clarke and Black Flag's Keith Morris.

"When I walked out on that stage, I felt like I was alive," Bisbano says. "No one could have given me anything better than that. What a welcome home."

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter.