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Breaking Rocks

Billy Bragg talks to Dazed about the charity organisation designed to help prison inmates use music as a form of rehabilitation

When Billy Bragg talks, people tend to listen. His Facebook campaign, Nobonus4RBS, has attracted over 30,000 members, whilst his decision to withhold tax contributions, as a form of protest to the mismanagement of high street banks, has made headlines in the national press. His latest project, Breaking Rocks is a documentary following his initiative to bring musical instruments into prisons as a form of rehabilitation. The scheme itself is entitled Jail Guitar Doors and has been put together in memoriam of the late Joe Strummer. Dazed Digital went to Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema to catch up with Billy Bragg, director Alan Miles, the former inmates, Johnny Neesom and Leon Walker and Reverend and the Maker's Jon McClure to discuss the project.
Dazed Digital: What is Jail Guitar Doors?
Billy Bragg: What we do is let the people who are in prisons know that there are people who give a shit about what happens to them. We lay a pretty heavy trip when we hand over these guitars: they’re not a gift, they’re not a present, they’re a challenge. The people who are raising the money for these guitars, getting them into prisons, are challenging prisoners to take the first steps to rehabilitation because we want those people to come back and to be in our society. The idea that people who are in prisons should be constantly punished is wrong. The prison is the punishment itself – being sent to prison is the punishment. We have the opportunity whilst people are in our custody to rehabilitate and help them put their lives back together. Many of them are there because they’ve done things that are wrong but they are also there because prison is the last place that can’t say ‘no’ in our society. Sadly, now if you fall through all the nets, that is where you hang up. What we do is about our faith in their ability to rehabilitate; but it is also about their faith in us, and our ability to continue to support this kind of work. I saw something really disturbing just before Christmas, one of the daily newspapers asked people – if there were going to be heavy public service cuts after the next election what would you cut first? The majority of people said education in prisons. These people don’t understand what prison is about; they don’t even understand what our society is about.
Dazed Digital: Did it help to have your guitar with you in prison?
Leon Walker: Definitely.
Dazed Digital: In what way?
Leon Walker: In prison you’re away from your family and you’re away from your loved ones and playing guitar is a great release to a lot of anger. Whatever emotion I’m feeling I’ll write along those lines – I’ve got happy songs, sad songs…. I’ve got devil songs. Music breaks down barriers. I’ve met some really sad people in prison, broken people. They don’t even look forward to getting out; they look to getting back in.
Dazed Digital: Did it rehabilitate you Leon?
Leon Walker: I’ve been in and out of prisons five times and this is the only time I’ve got out and actually stuck to something and carried on doing it.
Dazed Digital: Where are you hoping Jail Guitar Doors will lead?
Leon Walker: I’m hoping that I can get into prisons and start teaching the inmates guitar – I’ve already been in Pentonville and Brixton and I loved it.
Dazed Digital: How did you find it Johnny?
Johnny Neesom: Well I never played guitar before so I was glad to learn. I found that writing songs really helped me. I always write when I’m depressed – that’s why all my songs are sad and suicidal. It’s helped me a lot.
Dazed Digital: And how did you (Jon McClure) get involved?
Jon McClure: I went to Brixton and it was intense, it was just after I’d done this hip hop record and I was on stage asking if anyone could spit, and next thing I know all these Yardies were with me. But I think the music that comes out of prisons is soul music, not Soul Music but music that comes from within.  When I first heard Johnny (Neeson) do his thing it just blew me away and it stands a mile away from some bullshit pop like JLS… It all depends on how you see prison; how you view rehabilitation.
Dazed Digital: How did you get involved in the project?
Alan Miles: I’ve known Billy about ten years. He and I run a stage at Glastonbury called the Leftfield stage - well we started it and Billy is now an ambassador for it. I’m a fire fighter by trade and I was a filmmaker before I joined the fire brigade. During the strikes in 2002 I began making a lot of films for the union and Joe Strummer did a gig for us at Acton Town Hall to help support the cause and Mick Jones came on for it, and I made a film called The Last Night London Burned which we played at Glastonbury – that’s how I got to know Billy. Then five years ago, I made a film called Who Shot The Sheriff which was all about Rock Against Racism and that sort of era. We showed the film at Brixton prison, as part of an anti-racist day – it was five years after Joe Strummer died and Billy wanted to do something in memory of Joe. I think it was partly due to the success of the film that he realised how much prisoners loved music and he came up with the whole idea of Jail Guitar Doors. A guy called Malcolm Dudley from Guys Marsh Prison had written to Billy saying he was teaching guitar, but the prisoners had nothing to practice on in their cells. That’s how it all came about really. When he was going down with the first set of guitars he rang me and asked me to document it We didn’t expect to make a film of it. But over the next three years it grew, we wanted to get more people on board and Raindance Film Festival was coming up so we made the film to show there in 2009. I think because we’ve done the film totally independently it gets the passion across – we go across the country and revisit prisoners – I was going back under my own steam and seeing people like Leon every month to see how they were getting along. One thing you’ll notice with Jail Guitar Doors is that we never ask inmates what it is they’ve done. It’s irrelevant to what we’re filming, we’re not here to judge, but if people did know then a lot of them would begin to judge and that’s not what Jail Guitar Doors is about. We’re not against punishment, society does need to be protected but they’re still human beings. I think we’ve got to change our whole attitude to the prison system.

The Jail Guitar Doors compilation from Silverdoor Records is released April 19, 2010.