The Night the Jailhouse Rocked: Clash Day at Grafton Correctional Institution
Written by Conor Battles on February 20, 2020
The walls of Grafton Correctional Institution are not exactly soundproofed, but they might as well be.
Isolated from the outside world by miles of razor wire-adorned fences, the roughly two thousand minimum-to-medium-security inmates at Grafton spend their sentences working as part of a correctional labor program that “specializes in braille transcription and the bottling of fragrances,” according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
On a cold Saturday evening in February, inmates push carts laden with guitars, amplifiers, and sound equipment through freshly fallen snow towards the visiting room. Tonight, a handful of prisoners will be able to add another occupation to their resumes on the inside: rock stars.
The city of Kent, Ohio is a participant in International Clash Day, an annual global tribute to honor the legendary English punks. The movement, founded by Seattle alternative radio station KEXP, is in its eighth year. Kent has taken part since 2017, thanks largely to the efforts of Kent State Assistant Professor of Sociology Zach Schiller. But Schiller’s efforts take the celebration to the next level, highlighting the political message at the heart of the Clash ethos by merging the transformative power of music with activism and social justice.
Schiller credits the restless anguish he and others in the community felt following the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as the catalyst for his getting involved in Clash Day.
“I was really struck both with how depressed I was, and how everyone I knew that were usually bright and cheery and optimistic people were just outright despondent about what that portended,” Schiller said. “I had recently watched a couple documentaries [about the Clash] and I was reminded that early in their life, when they were squatting in London, there was active fascist movement in their city and in their community. And that’s sort of what their whole thing is about — fighting against that with their lyrics. And it just hit me: that’s exactly where we are now, again.”
Clash Day at Kent has always been about more than the music. Schiller’s passion for direct action inspires a weekend of events that promote the community, uplift the vulnerable, and shine a light on issues that affect people on a global scale. In the past, Clash Day events served as fundraisers for organizations like Books to Prisoners and Planned Parenthood.
A chance encounter between Schiller and another prominent leftist punk, Wayne Kramer of Detroit’s MC5, at the Kent Stage last year set in motion a plan to unite Clash Day with another charity organization: Jail Guitar Doors. The cause, spearheaded by English musician and activist Billy Bragg and its name itself lifted from a Clash lyric, aims to provide music equipment and lessons to prisons as part of a cultural rehabilitation initiative. All the fundraising from this year’s Clash Day festivities will go towards establishing Jail Guitar Doors programs in Ohio.
“One of our goals with growing Jail Guitar Doors specifically is to develop programming in women’s prisons, because there’s only one Jail Guitar Doors program so far in a women’s facility in the country,” Schiller said.
To highlight the importance and effectiveness of this cause, a one-night-only concert within the walls of Grafton, featuring Kent hardore punks Modem as the opener, would allow incarcerated musicians to show the world their talents via a simulcasted webstream. I and my colleagues at Black Squirrel Radio, Kent State’s student-run radio station, were commissioned to run this stream on-site.
Grafton makes for an ideal venue for this performance. Eric Gardenhire, director of the arts and crafts program at the prison, has spearheaded a variety of initiatives promoting creativity and artistry as a path towards rehabilitation, such as a gallery exhibition at Oberlin College featuring incarcerated artists in 2016. As policies surrounding mass incarceration continue to inspire political debate, Gardenhire’s work at Grafton shows that a kinder, more humane model of the prison system is possible.
“This model and this philosophy is becoming slightly more popularized across the country, but it’s kind of rare to have a group of administrators come together under that same vision,” Schiller said. “Because there are still lots of people within that they have to struggle with, and they have to fight to keep this philosophy going against the standard thinking of most guards and administrators.”
The plastic tables and chairs in the visitation center were rearranged to allow as many inmates as possible to come and watch the show. There was no stage to speak of. A drum kit and amps stand at the front of the room, in front of a play area usually reserved for visitors with children. Inmates run mics into the prison’s public address system and operate a weathered audio mixer, running soundchecks with all the expertise of a seasoned road crew.
Modem’s crushingly heavy set of noisy punk kicks off the show and the livestream with a literal bang. Inmates sit politely, nodding their heads and tapping their feet in time and breaking into applause at the conclusion of each song. The singer jokes that this is the most behaved crowd he’s ever seen. Elsewhere, a crowd gathered at Standing Rock Cultural Center in Kent watches the livestream with rapt attention, Zach among them. He places phone calls to the visitation desk with notes about the sound and video quality — no cell phones or internet access were allowed to the volunteers on-site running the show and the stream, so this would be the only line of communication between the two venues. I sit in the middle of the crowd, hunched over the audio mixer, headphones snug over my ears as I twiddle with knobs and sliders to cast the sounds of Grafton to the world.
Prison officials provided on-site assistance in putting the show together. Guards sat behind the security desk, their eyes on the stage and their heads bobbing with the rhythm. Gardenhire sat towards the back by the sound board, smiling as he watched the talent on display.
Modem wraps up their set, giving way to the real stars of the show. First up among the incarcerated acts is Contraband, a trio of older men playing covers of classic heavy metal. Modem’s drummer offers his kit for use by the inmates, but Contraband has no drummer — they play along to a drum machine beating out synthesized drum loops. As their set of Venom, Iron Maiden and Edgar Winter covers rolls along, it becomes abundantly clear that this is no talent show posturing but real, unadulterated skill, honed by years of dedication and practice. Joe* is the oldest of the three; he strips out of his dress blues to an impossibly pristine white t-shirt and shreds away on a donated Schecter guitar, a crucifix necklace shining around his neck. His guitar work is intricate and face-melting, white-hot heavy metal theatrics and squeals of distorted passion. It’s clear he revels in the attention this opportunity gives him. Despite the heaviness of the music he’s playing, a sly grin never leaves his lips as long as he’s onstage.
“I’ve been locked up twenty years, and this is the most outreach I’ve ever seen,” Joe said.
Raucous applause chases Contraband off their instruments. In stark contrast to their earth-shaking performance, a rapper is up next. A sample of a news report out of Cleveland about arrests for the death of a child in a gang-related shooting intones darkly about the reality that many of these men face: their criminal past threatens to overshadow their humanity. Art alone cannot absolve a man of his sins. Rich N Glory aims to challenge that. His spiritual take on hip-hop puts God above all and preaches atonement and growth as the ultimate virtue. It’s not an uncommon message among a prison population that frequently turns to religion in the face of their incarceration. His rapping is immaculate; doubtlessly the result of hours upon hours of practice and preparation. His message is a hopeful one — that by embracing spirituality and salvation, anyone can be redeemed.
The last act of the night is The Crew, a funky collective that once again features Joe on guitar. It is immediately clear why they were slotted to close the show: they are easily the most conventionally entertaining group of the night. Covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Love,” Gary Clark Jr.’s “Pearl Cadillac” and others are instant crowd pleasers, bolstered by truly accomplished musicianship. Their singer, a young man in a fitted baseball cap, packs more soul and earnest showmanship into his performance than anyone else on the mic that night. Joe and another, younger guitarist trade off rhythm and lead duties, each constantly one-upping the other. Their drummer and bassist maintain a steady backbeat, punctuated by occasional improvised fills and solos that mark their talent as plain to see.
As the show came to a close, Jail Guitar Doors volunteer Evan Rauch took the mic to inform the assembled inmates that the organization has donated eight new guitars to the prison’s library, allowing even more opportunities for musical talent to shine beyond the walls of Grafton Correctional. Elated prisoners chattered excitedly amongst themselves, congratulating the performers and plotting the next show as they shuffled into the storeroom to begin putting the room back together for another day of visits.
“It was palpable how much fun the guys were having as they played, and throat-lumping to witness their faces upon the announcement of the guitar donations,” Schiller said.
As a trial run of Jail Guitar Doors and Clash Day’s potential to amplify vulnerable voices, the show cannot be measured as anything but a success. The jailhouse rocked, and with new equipment and new fans on the outside, it will continue to do so.
*Name altered to protect the identity of this incarcerated person.