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I went to SXSW and ended up in jail

By Sally Kohn, CNN Political Commentator
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
"Selfie" may have been the <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/19/living/selfie-word-of-the-year/' target='_blank'>word of the year in 2013</a>, but the trend is far from over. Fans and celebrities alike take part as they attend South by Southwest festival taking place in Austin, Texas. Here, Nicolas Cage poses with a fan on Sunday, March 9. "Selfie" may have been the word of the year in 2013, but the trend is far from over. Fans and celebrities alike take part as they attend South by Southwest festival taking place in Austin, Texas. Here, Nicolas Cage poses with a fan on Sunday, March 9.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • As South by Southwest Music Festival begins, Sally Kohn visits prison
  • A program called Jail Guitar Doors aims to use music to transforms lives and a system
  • Kohn: America incarcerates too many and doesn't spend enough on rehabilitation

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- Let me tell you 'bout Wayne and his deals of

Cocaine

A little more every day

Holding for a friend till the band do well

Then the D.E.A. locked him away

-- The Clash, "Jail Guitar Doors"

The first thing you notice about the Travis County Correctional Complex is the door.

A thick steel door painted the color of the ocean on a cold day automatically slides open for visitors authorized to enter the jail. It makes a noise that fills the room when it closes. And then suddenly, it's severely quiet. As if the door was designed to warn you it can't be easily opened.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

On the other side, past beige hallway after beige hallway and an outside walkway bathed in barbed wire, I arrived at Room 7 on the programs floor, where eight women were learning to play guitar and write songs.

"Let's practice the G chord again and strum four times," instructed Jean Synodinos, an Austin-based singer-songwriter who teaches the weekly music class at the county jail in Texas. The students each focus on wrapping their fingers around the frets of acoustic guitars, each one with "Jail Guitar Doors" spray-painted on the wood.

Jail Guitar Doors is the name of an organization started by musician Billy Bragg in the United Kingdom. Inspired by a song by The Clash, Bragg wanted to bring instruments and music education into prisons to support the rehabilitation process behind bars. It was only later that Bragg learned the "Wayne" in The Clash song was his friend Wayne Kramer, co-founder of the punk band MC5.

Kramer was one of the most influential political musicians of a generation. But in 1975, Kramer was caught selling cocaine to undercover agents and served two years in the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Over three decades later, it was Bragg who prompted Kramer to start a U.S. branch of the organization that Kramer had inspired.

Inmates choose longer sentence for this
CNN@SXSW What's Next
CNN@SXSW: Why Austin

This is how there came to be eight women in the Travis County Correctional Complex learning to play G chords and write songs. Just a few miles away, the annual South by Southwest music festival was getting underway, a massive event in which hundreds of thousands of music industry professionals and fans from around the world converge on Austin to hear their favorite bands or find new ones waiting to be discovered.

From what I can tell, people mostly just spend a lot of time waiting in line and partying, throngs of music fans spilling over into the street in search of entertainment. But the class at the Travis County jail reminds us that music is more than just entertainment. It's power. The power to transform someone's life, the power to transform a system.

Almost all of the women at the Travis County jail have been behind bars before. They're facing trial for a range of offenses, from drug possession to parole violations to larceny. These aren't major crimes. One of the women in the class is on trial for shoplifting $15 in merchandise from a department store. But since it's her fourth offense, she's facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Our criminal justice system is broken, as these women not only say but clearly show with such stories.

Yet the women also talk about how they are broken too, how they can't seem to turn their lives around. And they don't want society to give up on them. They crave the services that have largely been slashed as the United States has focused less on rehabilitation and more on simply warehousing people who commit crimes, contributing to our country having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

"This class isn't just about music," says Raul Garcia, a program coordinator on staff at the jail. The women are learning to channel their feelings into constructive outlets and to stop and think before acting.

"It's that impulsivity that can get you in trouble," Garcia says connecting the class to its real world implications. "You have to learn to use your breaks."

"What did you eat today for breakfast?" asks Synodinos.

"Oh, we had this awful meat patty thing that's brown on the outside and pink on the inside," one woman says. The seven other women erupt in agreement, the gray stripes of their uniforms bouncing with the energetic discussion.

Synodinos interrupts, "OK, but what does that symbolize for you? Maybe you really don't like it because it makes you miss your mom's cooking."

The woman who brought up the meat patty in the first place jerks her shoulders back with the thought, then takes a deep breath and wipes her eyes. The meat patty is more than just a menu item. And these women's lives can be more than just a prison term.

"Music is like an escape," one of the women says during the discussion. "It reminds us there's life outside, there's something more than these walls to be a part of."

At the same time, Jail Guitar Doors reminds us that music is about more than lines and concerts and hit singles. Music is about expression and self-discovery and empowerment and transformation.

And for eight women in the Travis County Correctional Complex, music is a way to respond to the noise of their lives and find a way to escape, at least metaphorically for now, that impenetrable door.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

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