A group of musicians including Billy Bragg, the Smiths‘ Johnny Marr, Pink Floyd‘s Dave Gilmour, Seasick Steve and Radiohead‘s Ed O’Brien and Philip Selway have signed a petition contesting the banning of steel-string guitars in British prisons.
In an open letter published by The Guardian, the 12 signatories urge the minister for justice, Chris Grayling, to overturn the government’s blanket ban on the instruments which was a part of last year’s changes to the incentive and earned privileges policy for prisoners. The same initiatives banned prisoners from receiving books.
“We believe music has an important role to play in engaging prisoners in the process of rehabilitation,” write the concerned musicians. “However, this ability will be seriously undermined if inmates are unable to practise between group sessions.” The use of instruments by inmates had previously been up to the discretion of the staff.
“There has been a worrying rise in the number of self-inflicted deaths in the period since this ruling was introduced,” reads the letter. “Since October 2013, when only one death was reported, there have been a total of 50 self-inflicted deaths, over double the figure for the same period last year.”
Nylon stringed guitars are still allowed for those who earn the privilege, but the musicians say this is impractical as most guitars currently used by inmates are steel-string. “This ruling will mean that these instruments are kept under lock and key until time for a supervised session, if the prison in question has provision for musical tuition,” they write.
The musicians are appealing to Grayling to investigate whether the recent changes to the privileges policy could be the cause of the steep increase in fatalities and for an explanation as to why steel-strung guitars have been “singled out for exclusion.”
Bragg, who runs the not-for-profit initiative Jail Guitar Doors, which provides musical instruments for prisons, told The Guardian nearly all of the instruments his organisation have provided for prisoners have been steel-string guitars.
“Almost all the guitars currently in British prisons tend to be steel strung, so this effectively means they’ve all been removed as it’s just not possible to re-string them all with nylon,” he explained. “There’s never been to my knowledge, an incident in a British prison where someone has been attacked with a steel string guitar,” said the musician. “It makes no sense – where’s the logic behind this? Where’s the thinking behind this?”
Labour MP Kevin Brennan said he would raise the issue in parliament this week. “When some prisoners wrote to me about how they saved from their prison wages to buy guitars which were now being banned I thought the government would have some genuine reason for this change,” he said.
“The prisons minister has admitted that learning the guitar is good for rehabilitation so why he would want to undermine rehabilitation by this arbitrary policy on guitar strings is baffling.”