Let Freedom Sing: Rockers, Policy Wonks, and Former Prisoners Team Up to Advocate for Criminal Justice Reform

Wayne Kramer, co-founder of legendary rock band MC5 and Jail Guitar Doors USA. Photo courtesy of AFSC-AZ.

By Jeff Kronenfeld

The Copper State’s capitol will be filled by the voices of the voiceless next week. They will ask lawmakers to stop the unprecedented rise in the number of Arizonans being thrown in prison. Legendary rock guitarist Wayne Kramer and the ReFraming Justice Project of American Friends Service Committee-Arizona (AFSC-AZ) are making sure those pleas are heard. Kramer will perform with a group of musicians that are directly impacted by the criminal justice system at Kick Out the Jams for Justice on Monday, January 20. ReFraming Justice Day 2020 begins the next morning. Directly impacted people will take the lead again, sharing their experiences with lawmakers.

For Grace Gámez — program coordinator of AFSC-AZ’s ReFraming Justice Project — the events are the culmination of years of work. She founded the ReFraming Justice Project as a way for directly impacted people to share their stories with the community. Over time, its mission expanded. Now it conducts research on mass incarceration, helps the released reintegrate and empowers them to advocate for reform. Despite the growth in its mission over the years, the group never forgot the power of the story. “I felt like if the stories of directly impacted people were told in these public ways that it might create an opening for our communities to think about not just folks who’ve been system involved, but also how they vote,” Gámez said.

Grace Gámez (fourth from the left), the program director and founder of AFSC-AZ’s ReFraming Justice Project, and other leaders of the RFJ project. Photo courtesy of AFSC-AZ.

Arizona has the fourth-highest rate of incarceration in the country. Over 41,000 people are in prison around the state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. AFSC-AZ advocates for reforming this bloated system and doing more to support those it impacts. The organization built relationships with lawmakers and, of course, those who know what life is really like on the inside. It also fostered links to other nonprofits and advocacy groups, both in and out of the state. This will be the second ReFraming Justice Day.

Unlike the previous year’s event, this one will feature musical performances from an icon of rock history. Kramer is a founding member of MC5, a legendary rock band formed in Michigan in 1963. Their hard-driving beats and politically aware lyrics influenced generations of musicians from The Clash to Rage Against the Machine. The band was successful, landing on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1969, but broke up in 1972. Kramer became involved in the cocaine trade. Eventually, he was arrested and served time in federal prison from 1975 through 1978.

The Clash released the song “Jail Guitar Doors” the same year Kramer was released. The song immortalized Kramer’s days as a rocker and then outlaw. In 2007, Billy Bragg began bringing music and instruments into prisons in the U.K. to honor a deceased bandmate from The Clash. Kramer learned of the initiative and wanted to start a version in America. He and Bragg launched Jail Guitars Doors USA in 2009. The nonprofit donated instruments to 157 penal institutions throughout the country since then. It developed a trauma-based songwriting program currently operating in 11 prisons nationally, including Arizona. They also work with youth populations in and out of penal institutions. Graduates of the program locally will perform with Kramer for the Kick Out the Jams for Justice event at First Church UCC Phoenix. Before the concert, Gámez will moderate a discussion panel with all the musicians, including Kramer.

Another exciting part of ReFraming Justice Day this year is a program to train directly impacted people to become leaders in advocating for reform. Such leadership development efforts are run by many organizations across the political spectrum. What makes the RFJ Leaders program so revolutionary is that it empowers some of the most marginalized people in society: former prisoners.

In preparation for Tuesday’s lobbying marathon, the 15-members of the RFJ Leaders program participated in three educational workshops. Of course, one focused directly on legislative advocacy. AFSC-AZ Communications Director Joe Watson facilitated another group workshop. He covered how directly impacted people can interface with the media. Participants are trained on how to handle intrusive or insulting questions and even get to practice skills in mock interviews. Gámez led the third workshop. It teaches former inmates how to share their stories in three minutes or less. This is valuable not just in advocacy work, but also for job interviews and in other situations.  

ReFraming Justice Day 2020 will begin with Kramer performing the national anthem in the Rose Garden of the Capitol next Tuesday at 10 a.m. This will be followed by speakers with experience in the system sharing their stories and insights, such as Matthew Charles. He was one of the first people released as a result of the federal First Step Act last year.

His story catapulted onto the national stage when he was unable to find a place to live due to his criminal background. This experience is extremely common for the formerly incarcerated. What was less common is that Charles attended the State of the Union address as First Lady Melania Trump’s personal guest. He was saved from state-sanctioned homelessness by the intervention of Kim Kardashian West. Charles will speak about the need to modernize Arizona’s sentencing practices. “When a person comes out, we banish them from our communities. We make it really hard for a person to reintegrate into their families, into their neighborhoods, and into the workforce,” Gámez explained. “Then, when folks fail, we blame them.”

Matthew Charles is a former prisoner and current criminal justice reform advocate. He is also one of the first people released as a result of the federal First Step Act last year. Photo courtesy of AFSC-AZ.

Arizona’s 2020 legislative session commenced on January 13. AFSC-AZ has yet to officially endorse any specific bills, but they will be supporting a range of policy reforms. Bills meaningfully addressing collateral consequences, reducing the 85% rule, increasing substance abuse treatment options and re-entry are the kind of policies they advocate for. However, there are four anti-LGBT+ bills — HB2080, HB2081, HB2082, and SB 1082 — they oppose. Above all, they will advocate for those impacted by laws to have a role in drafting them, including those that are LGBT+. “I am proud that we have finally arrived at a moment when the voices of those impacted by incarceration and mass criminalization are heard as credible and respected sources on these issues,” Gámez said. “This day is explicitly focused on pouring into the leadership capacity of directly impacted people and connecting them to meaningful opportunities to engage and to lead.”