Radiohead and Pink Floyd Members Petition to Keep Guitars in Prisons

Johnny Marr, Billy Bragg and others seeking to overturn new law reducing prisoners' privileges

April 29, 2014 3:15 PM ET
Radiohead  Pink Floyd
Thom Yorke of Radiohead.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

A number of artists including Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and Radiohead's Ed O'Brien and Philip Selway have signed an open letter, published by The Guardian, to keep musical instruments available to U.K. prisoners.

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Spearheaded by Billy Bragg, the singer-songwriter founded an "independent initiative" called Jail Guitar Doors in 2007 to provide instruments for the rehabilitation of inmates. The letter protests the U.K. Minister of Justice Chris Gayling's blanket ban on guitars in prison, part of the government's changes to the privileges policy that went into effect last fall for prisoners, The Guardian reports.

"As musicians, we are concerned to hear that the use of steel-strung guitars is being prohibited in prisons," the open letter reads. "We believe music has an important role to play in engaging prisoners in the process of rehabilitation. However, this ability will be seriously undermined if inmates are unable to practice between group sessions."

The 12 musicians who signed the letter claim that the government's push to keep nylon-string guitars available was impractical as musicians use different techniques on steel-string guitars. They felt the need to write the letter because the use of instruments 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," they wrote. "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.

"We would like to know whether the recent changes to the treatment of prisoners – which includes restrictions on books and steel-strung guitars – could be at the root of this steep increase in fatalities," they continued.

The letter ends by calling on Grayling to investigate the causes of prison suicides since the new policies went into effect. The musicians also want an explanation as to why steel-string guitars were "singled out for exclusion."

In addition to the musicians mentioned above, the letter was signed by Speech Debelle, Richard Hawley, Scroobius Pip, Elbow frontman Guy Garvey, Seasick Steve, The Farm and Sam Duckworth.

Labour Member of Parliament Kevin Brennan has said he would raise these questions 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 told The Guardian. "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."

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