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Cook County Jail hopes guitar lessons change inmates’ tune

Updated: October 14, 2012 1:07PM

Call it Cook County Jail unplugged.

A program to teach inmates how to play guitar and channel their feelings into song writing kicked off with an event at Cook County Jail’s Division 11 Thursday.

The program, which will take advantage of 10 donated acoustic guitars brought to the jail on Wednesday, provides group lessons to 10 detainees chosen from a pool of more than 300. All inmates at Division 11 are in minimum and medium security while awaiting trial.

“Hopefully this will help inmates turn their feelings into a tune instead of into a fight,” said Cook County Sheriff’s spokesman Frank Bilecki.

American rock guitarist Wayne Kramer of MC5 fame, who’s done jail time for drug offenses, made the donation of the guitars through his organization, Jail Guitar Doors, which is also the name of a song the punk rock band The Clash wrote about Kramer’s imprisonment.

Local musician Mike Vanier has volunteered to instruct the weekly, hour-long classes, with the assistance of songwriter Steffen Keating.

Detainees chosen to participate had a demonstrated interest in music — along with higher bond amounts that could keep them around for the duration of the eight-week program.

The 10 future music students attended the event, along with about 25 more detainees who will serve as alternates in the program should any of the current members bond out. The students also got a chance to try out the instruments.

Kramer is passionate about using his guitar skills to help those currently incarcerated get out and stay out.

“He is trying to make sure these people stay on the straight and narrow,” Bilecki said. “That’s no different from what Sheriff Dart is trying to do.”

Asked if the program would add additional costs to the jail, Bilecki said, “Taxpayers aren’t spending a dime on this.”

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has also created inmate garden, apiary and chess programs.

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