Austin musicians change inmates’ lives through the power of music


Austin musicians Kevin Hoetger, Kyle Crusham, Johnny Dango are a few of the volunteers who give inmates guitar lessons through Jail Guitar Doors. Photo courtesy of Jail Guitar Doors.

Stephanie Robalino

Once a week at the Travis County Correctional Complex, the sounds of acoustic guitars can be heard resonating throughout the halls of the jail. Thanks to the guitar and songwriting lesson efforts of Austin musicians Kevin Hoetger, Kyle Crusham, Johnny Dango and Todd Thompson, inmates have something to look forward to every week: the opportunity to learn how to play music. 

“Music is a great way to let out feelings,” Crusham said. “What we are providing them with is basically therapy with guitars.”

Hoetger, Crusham, Dango and Thompson run the Austin chapter of the independent charity Jail Guitar Doors. Founded in 2007 by British rock musician and political activist Billy Bragg, the initiative was first launched in England to provide musical equipment that could be used to rehabilitate inmates serving time in prison. 

The organization was named after The Clash’s 1978 single, “Jail Guitar Doors,” which tells the story of the drug-related imprisonment of Wayne Kramer, the guitarist of rock group MC5. After spending time behind bars and seeing firsthand the limited opportunities for inmates to self-improve, Kramer partnered with Bragg to found Jail Guitar Doors USA in 2009. 

Jail Guitar Doors’ philosophy is this: the prison system is over-full and under-funded, resulting in re-offending at an unacceptably high rate. The organization believes that, as citizens, it is in our interest to help enhance the lives of inmates while they are still in our custody to lower the chances of that happening. And the musician volunteers are doing just that — providing inmates the opportunity to use music as a tool to better themselves, while directing their lives a little further away from bad decisions. 

According to Crusham, the vast majority of inmates the charity works with are drug addicts who need to be rehabilitated from addiction, not crime. 

“What you realize is that they are kind of normal people,” Crusham said. “Many of them you could see yourself becoming friends with. The majority are not murderers. They just did stupid things and got caught.” 

Otis Gibbs, a singer-songwriter from Nashville, performed this year at a South By Southwest showcase to raise awareness for Jail Guitar Doors.

“The way I look at it is that someday, when these people are released, they are going to be our neighbors,” Gibbs said. “It’s in our own best interest to make sure that they come out of the prison in a much better state of mind than before, rather than pent up emotionally.“

Gibbs said Jail Guitar Doors is not only popular with the inmates, but with the wardens as well. 

“The wardens love the program,” Gibbs said. “They believe it has immensely helped the rehabilitation process among inmates. They have recognized that there seem to be people that are released that are now on a better path.” 

Hoetger believes that making personal connections and giving inmates a feeling that people actually care about them will bring about the greatest change in our prisons, more so than any government grant. 

“These music lessons are the highlights of their week,” Hoetger said. “Just a single hour when they get to strum on a guitar or even simply engage in a conversation gets them one step closer on the road to rehabilitation.”

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Local guitarists bring music to prisoners".