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?

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Feb 7 2017, 7:49pm

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.

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