Returned Citizens: Wayne Kramer and Domenic Palermo on Prison Reform

The activist-musicians discuss their experiences being incarcerated and their work in the movement for a more humane justice system.

Wayne Kramer is an author and one of the co-founders of the legendary garage rock/proto-punk band MC5; Domenic Palermo is the frontman of the Philly-based noise rock band NOTHING. Having both been incarcerated, they’ve each become advocates for a more humane justice system—Kramer founded the organization Jail Guitar Doors and Palermo recently launched a non-profit, Belly of the Beats, which provides funding to inmates with legal needs, assistance to their families, and helps inmates in the crucial early stages of their return to society. Here, you can read their conversation about their respective work in the movement for prison reform.  
—Annie Fell, Associate Editor, Talkhouse

Domenic Palermo: Wayne, I just want to say I’m a big fan, first off.

Wayne Kramer: Thank you. I did a little homework, and read about your past. We share some things. I know you’ve been through a lot, man.

DP: You know, it turns into who you are today. It’s another life lesson.

WK: Yeah, it puts us in the unique position to be able to say to another guy that we know how he feels, because we did that too.

DP: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if there’s one thing that you could pull out of that scenario that can be good, I think it’s important to utilize that.

WK: I always try to encourage guys to write about their experience and tell the world what goes on inside these penitentiaries, because it’s being done in their name; It’s being done in the name of public safety. They need to know what life is actually like inside these facilities.

DP: Yeah. You were in the feds in Lexington, right?

WK: Correct. My old Kentucky home. [Laughs]

DP: All the time, people will be like, “You’re from Philadelphia your whole life, right?” I’ll be like, “Yeah, but I spent two years in Jersey… Had an apartment in Camden for a couple of years.” That’s the only way they can get me to live in New Jersey, Wayne—in prison.

WK: I feel you. I didn’t live in Kentucky by choice, that’s for sure.

DP: I imagine that when you’re in federal, it’s usually people that are not your average [drug] pusher.

WK: We had volume guys—guys that were on the top end of the pyramid. We also had street-level guys, too. Today, the feds are locking corner boys up.

DP: It’s for anything now. I imagine it’s probably a little different than in the ’70s and ’80s. You were in in the late ‘70s, right?

WK: Yeah, it was different mostly because there was no gang culture. The way we looked at it was, all of us prisoners against the feds. We were unified. A lot of guys were Vietnam vets who knew weapons and tactics, and came home with huge narcotic habits, and they know how to rob banks or drug dealers.

DP: They don’t have gangs, really, in Philly, but when I was locked up in Jersey, it was a completely different thing. It’s, like, fifty different gangs up there.

WK: It’s like that here. I live in California, and the guards actually work with the gangs to pit them against each other so they can control the situation. It’s really foul what they do here. They’re starting to make some efforts; They’re trying to integrate the yards now, and they’re eliminating the sensitive needs yards, because all the guys that go over to the sensitive needs yards have now taken over half of all the prisons, so what’s the point? They brought their culture with them, and the sensitive needs yards are the same as the general population yards.

DP: I can’t imagine. I have a couple friends that spent time in San Quentin, and it’s a different beast out there for sure.

WK: San Quentin is the jewel of the California Department of Corrections. It’s really a unique facility. They have over a thousand volunteers a week running programs at San Quentin. If you gotta do time today, it’s a good place to do it.

DP: Yeah, I’m sure that place has changed a lot over the years, too. I know that place was renowned for being a nightmare.

WK: They were, but a lot of changes in California.

DP: Well, I mean, it’s a progressive place—even in that sense, I would imagine. How long were you down there [in Kentucky] for?

WK: I was down for two and a half years. The judge gave me four, but I got an early parole.

DP: They give it out in months when it’s fed time, right?

WK: Well, in those days, they had guidelines that were based on what they call the “salient factor score.” So, if your offense included weapons or stolen cars or crossing state lines or kidnapping or violence, you’d end up with a numerical score, and then they would cross reference the score with the guidelines. In my case, my guidelines called for more time than I would have done on my minimum, on my maximum. If I had no good time credits and did all four years, my guidelines were above that.

DP: Oh, so they really tried to sting you, huh?

WK: Well, you get what your hand calls for.

DP: You’re right about that. Did you have parole time after that?

WK: I did. I had to finish up the rest of the four years the judge gave me, then I had a three-year special parole term. It was for drug offenders—you could do two years, 11 months and 29 days of the three years, get violated, and you’d have to go back and start the three years over again.

DP: Oh my god. I mean, that’s pretty similar to what the probation is like in Philly now. It’s kind of the same thing. When you catch a violation now, they just start your probation over again, with different additional time.

WK: You get no credit for your street time.

DP: I mean, this is one of the main reasons why I started what I’m trying to do with Belly of the Beats, and stuff like that. I have so many friends in Philly that got jammed up for minor shit—weed stuff. They’ve been the system for 15 years now because they can’t get off probation. I Imagine you’ve probably seen some of the stuff with Meek Mill that’s gone on fairly recently.

WK: Yeah, sure.

DP: I mean, it’s nuts. I didn’t know they gave special parole, too, with that stuff. It’s a nightmare. Was your PO rough?

WK: No. I had one shitty PO when I was in Brooklyn, but the rest of my deal was pretty good.

DP: Those were renowned for being awful.

WK: I was lucky. I had a guy in Detroit—he was cool. I had a woman in Manhattan, and she was also very cool. So I got lucky there.

DP: That’s good. My friend—he’s a really talented artist, but he just came home from eight years.

WK: Ouch.

DP: Yeah, I know. That’s a rough one. That’s a life-changer, but he’s doing really well now. He’s selling all these paintings, but they’re really running him through loops here. You would think Manhattan would be a more progressive system, especially for someone who has this talent—people want his artwork all over the place. But it’s still the same deal.

WK: Well, all this stuff starts at the top. If you look at the Attorney General—I mean, this fool is as regressive as it’s possible to be. I mean, he wants to lock up more people and have stiffer drug penalties, and have longer sentences. That all filters down to the courts and the attitude of the POs. Some of them are forward thinking and rehabilitation reentry-oriented. Some think it’s their job to punish people. It’s not. We are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.

DP: So do you want to tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with this thing you have set up?

WK: With Jail Guitar Doors? Well, what we do is simple: we find people that work in corrections that are willing to use music as a tool for positive change. We provide instruments to correctional facilities, mostly guitars. The guitars are not gifts; We don’t gift anybody a free guitar. The people that donate the money that pays for the guitars are sending a message to the people that live inside our prisons. The message is that they believe in them; that if given the incentives and the tools and the encouragement, people will change for the better. If they accept the guitars, then they accept that challenge and they gotta step up and start doing the work. Our instruments are in over 120 American prisons today.

DP: Oh, that’s great.

WK: We also run songwriting workshops. In these workshops, we help people find a way to express complex feelings positively through the process of songwriting. We’ve developed a curriculum that starts with childhood trauma and works its way up through betrayal, family issues, anger, making amends, taking responsibility, [and] forgiveness to help people prepare to return to the community, to rejoin us out here in the world. Because if we don’t do something to help people change for the better, they will most certainly change for the worse. We ignore that fact at our own peril.

600,000 people are released from prison every year. They’re going to stand next to you and me at the supermarket, at the movies, and at the gym. Who do I want next to me? Somebody that’s been inculcated in a world of violence and racism and defeat and bitterness? Or someone that’s been given a shot at trying to figure out what went wrong and what can they do to make sure they never go back to these penitentiaries? As you know, in writing songs and performing this music, it’s transformative. It gives you to a place to take those feelings that’s positive.

DP: For sure. When you first come home, it’s pretty common to have a chip on your shoulder. It was tough to readjust, even after just a couple years. The crime rate in Philly for parolees is 95%. It’s fucking crazy—95%. My parole officer told me that the first day that I met her. I had an asshole parole officer, too. She’d show up at my house at, like, three in the morning knocking on my door.

WK: That’s fucked up.

DP: She hated me. Finally she got fired, and I got this guy who basically was just like, “Look, I’m gonna give you enough rope to hang yourself with, so you can do what you wanna do.”

WK: Well, welcome home, brother.

DP: It’s been 10 years now. It doesn’t even feel real at this point anymore, but you know.

WK: It changes you. You can’t help it, and it never goes away. I just had a going-back-to-prison dream this week.

DP: Me too. It’s crazy that you still get them. I have one biweekly, at least, that I did something wrong and I’m basically saying goodbye to everybody again.

WK: Yeah. Mine are like, Damn, man! Oh, you did it. You’re back here, you fool!

DP: I’m glad that it’s not just me, because I tell people that shit and I feel like they don’t think that I’m telling the truth. That’s how you know that that shit had an impact on you, man—because you’re still dreaming about that shit.

WK: Yeah, it never leaves you, man. It’s there forever. I don’t have them as often as I used to, but I had one this week. I woke up and told my wife, “Damn, baby. I had a go back to prison dream again.”

DP: Jesus Christ. I guess I can’t wait to tell my lady that. She’ll be like, “You guys are both psychopaths.”

WK: No doubt. [Laughs]

DP: You started Jail Guitar Doors with Billy Bragg, right?

WK: Right. He started it in England; He wanted to do something to honor Joe Strummer’s life’s work, because The Clash are the guys that inspired him to combine his activism and his love of music. A guy that worked in a prison had written him [that he] was trying to use music as a tool for rehabilitation, but they didn’t have any instruments. He was a Billy Bragg fan, and he knew Billy was an activist, so he said, “Billy, can you find us some guitars?” Billy said, “This would be perfect. This is exactly what I’m looking for. I’ll name it after that Clash b-side, ‘Jail Guitar Doors,’ and I’ll go get my rockstar friends to give me some money to buy guitars for these guys.” I said, “That sounds great, Bill, but I’m an American, and I’m a returned citizen, and I’m a musician. I should do it in this country.”

So 10 years ago, we launched it. Today, we’re in 10 California prison yards. We’re in the California Youth Authority; We’re in the LA County Jail, the Chicago Cook County Jail; We’re at Rikers Island in New York; We’re up in the Massachusetts youth offender facilities; We’re in Detroit, we’re in Texas, we’re in San Diego.

DP: Oh, that’s so cool.The past few years, I’ve really started trying to use this little bit of a… I mean, we have a pretty minor platform, but I try to use it to its full advantage. We’ve done stuff for LGBT homeless youth and AgeWell, and all this stuff. My main thing was always to eventually get into something with this, the criminal justice stuff, just because it hits so close to home for me. I’ve watched so many friends and family get caught up in that revolving door system that Philly has. It wrecked countless people that I care about’s lives

WK: Well, listen, man. If you’re interested in trying to launch a JGD program in a local facility, let me know, and I’ll walk you through it. We can provide you with all the materials.

DP: I mean, truly what you’re doing is so inspiring. It’s so difficult to sit here and finally have the focus to know where you want to point your direction and where you want to expend some energy. Right now, what’s gonna be my angle in helping to see some change? Obviously, you want to look to the legislative side of things, but it’s no easy task, as you probably know.

At this point for [Belly of the Beats], we found a really good nonprofit in Philly called Pennsylvania Prison Society. Basically, these guys have a solid group of volunteers; They basically go around Pennsylvania, and they’re invited into the prisons to oversee the conditions.

WK: Perfect.

DP: You know that’s important, having somebody see what the fuck is going on in there, because if there’s not, the people that run these places truly would just do whatever the fuck they want. Also, they organize a taxi service, because in Philly when you get locked up and you go upstate—most of these people [are] poor minorities, and a lot of these people don’t have cars. If people get sent out, they’re away from their kids, they’re away from their family and it’s beyond their means to get out there to see them.

WK: That’s good stuff. We kind of look at it as a two-tiered approach: we work down on the ground—people helping people, putting guitars in prisoners’ hands, and helping them work through that process—but we also have one eye on the legislative side of it. I’ve made a bunch of trips to Washington to hold Congress members’ feet to the fire. These days, we’re focusing most of our efforts in California because that’s where we are. We have access to state legislators here.

In fact, one of the guys in our office just came home at Christmas. He’d been down 38 years, and he’s gonna go to Miami in September to speak at a meeting of prison officials and police. There’s a movement afoot to bring civilian oversight into prison, and he’s going to go and talk about his experience over the course of his lifetime in the California Department of Corrections. I think it’s coming. All of this stuff, you guys are working out there, we work here; There are people all over the country that care about justice and care about prisoners. I think the time is going to come where we will all need to organize at a political level, because a window is going to open and we want to be able to mobilize to be able to get new legislation passed to undo some of the damage that’s been done over the last 30 years.

We tried to launch a program in the Philadelphia County facility out there, and I brought a load of guitars. I did a kickoff event [with] local musicians—some jazz guys came in with me. We did a kickoff, and we never heard from them again. I kept calling them and [so did] my local guy, and nobody ever called us back. Nobody followed up on anything. It was really discouraging.

DP: Of course. They typically don’t want anything like that—nothing new that’ll interfere with the routine.

WK: Yeah, I’m afraid you’re right about that. Something that most people don’t realize about prisons is they’re like little fiefdoms, and the warden is the king. They do whatever they want to do.

DP: Absolutely. People really don’t realize that it’s completely lawless. You have no rights in there. It’s beyond anything.

WK: It’s their own kingdom, and it all starts with the warden. They do what they want to, to who they want to. That’s why civilian oversight would be a good idea. Any oversight would be a good idea. I realized real quick if these people didn’t want me to eat, I wasn’t gonna eat. They didn’t want me to sleep, I wasn’t gonna sleep. They controlled everything.

DP: That’s crazy. How did you get the connection with the actual jail?

WK: It took a lot of effort. I talk about recovery sometimes, and I had a couple guys invite me in the LA County Jail to do a 12 Step talk. I did that, then I met a sheriff’s deputy, who I liked who had the same idea about rehabilitation that I did. I told him that I also do this thing with music instruments and prisoners, and he said, “Man, I’d like to have that up here.” That took me six years to get into the LA County Jail. Shit takes a long time.

DP: They don’t want you in there.

WK: Right. I met somebody that worked in one of the California State Prisons, so I got a chance to go in and talk to them. While I was there, I met another guy, who was a lieutenant, and I told him what I wanted to do and got his card. Then I started meeting other people that worked in the same space. Out here, there’s a group called the Actor’s Gang, and they run theater programs in the prisons. I was able to meet people through them. They knew a community resource manager—which, in the California system, that’s the official in the Department of Corrections that will liaise with community members and the correctional facility.

It’s like the music business—the business of relationships. You meet one guy and you have to prove yourself to him, and then he introduces you to somebody else. It’s a long, steady, turtle-like process. In the beginning, I used to call prisons, and I couldn’t get people on the phone. Today, we probably get two pieces of mail a week from a prison somewhere in America saying, “Hey, we heard about Jail Guitar Doors. We’d like to have a music program here. Could you help us?”

DP: That’s great, man. That’s really something. It’s inspiring, for sure. It’s a great thing what you’re doing.

WK: We can accomplish these things. I mean, you have to do it wholeheartedly; You can’t half-step. But if you go at it full measure, you can get it done.

DP: It’s truly, truly inspiring to talk to you about this, man. I mean, this is the kind of talk that I need, especially moving forward with [Belly of the Beats] into the future. What a perfect thing that you have set up too, man. It really is something special. I applaud you.

WK: Well, thanks, brother. It means a lot coming from you.

DP: Also, I just read that William Burroughs actually spent time in Lexington too. Did you know that?

WK: I did know that. Sure.

DP: That’s fucking crazy.

WK: Uncle Bill.

DP: He’s one of my favorites for sure. Chet Baker too, huh?

WK: Chet Baker, yeah. Any great jazz musician that used went through Lexington, because you could be sent there by the courts in the ’40s and ’50s, but you could also go voluntarily for “the cure.” They used to think that good, clean farm air and hard farm labor and a little bit of psychology was going to cure addiction. Of course, they were hopelessly naive about that, but it was a step in the right direction.

DP: Yeah, for sure. I mean, prior to that, it was just stop doing it or go in a prison cell.

WK: Well, the wardens didn’t like that new class of prisoner, the drug addict, so they built these new prisons just for junkies.

DP: I was reading something a couple days ago about you, and you were talking about when you were around 24—I guess it was probably before you caught the case. How old were you when you caught the case, actually?

WK: I was right about that [age]—I think when I went down, I was 25 or 26.

DP: That was in Detroit, right?

WK: Yeah.

DP: I was reading—this must have been some interview—talking about driving around with a pistol and thinking you’re a gangster. When you see what’s going on these days with all the gun violence, how does that make you feel, seeing it back then and seeing how things are now?

WK: Well, in a lot of ways, I feel like this is a natural evolution of police policy and prosecutors and judges and legislation that was unwise—that have created a situation where guns have flooded America. I mean, there’s 300 million guns and there’s, I don’t know, 350 million people. We have a gun for everybody. It’ll take 100 years for those guns to fall apart. Capitalism has created this situation, and political power has created this situation, and, in a lot of ways, we pay the price for it. Communities of color are demonized and people with limited economic means are demonized. We are the ones that go to prison. Rich people get richer and everybody else suffers.

Until the mass of the population takes action—and I don’t necessarily mean violent protests in the street, because I’m not sure how effective that is, but political involvement. Most people don’t even fucking vote! Until people start taking full responsibility and participating in the democratic process, things are going to stay bad. I mean, it’s not impossible for things to get better, but people are going to have to step up.

DP: There’s a lot of talking and not much doing, and that’s what really pushed the gears for me to try to start moving this thing. There’s a whole lot of talking, there’s not much doing anymore.

WK: Yeah, we’re talking about more than just pushing a like on the computer. We gotta get out there and do something.

To learn more about Jail Guitar Doors, go to

(Photo Credit: Left, Mike Barich)

Domenic Palermo is an artist and a musician, founder of both Death of Lovers and the award-winning and Billboard-charting NOTHING. Hailing from the Kensington/Frankford areas of Philadelphia, Palermo saw many of his friends and family fall prey to the trappings of an underprivileged neighborhood, spending time in and out of the justice system. Palermo himself also made a near fatal decision that landed him in a correctional facility, a moment that he vowed to avoid from then forward. Since then, Palermo has emerged as not only a successful artist and writer, but an advocate for Philadelphia and a vocal proponent for change, on an individual level as well as in the cogs of the justice system. It’s with this personal and peripheral experience that he created Belly of the Beats, a nonprofit with several corporate partners that seeks to help the incarcerated and their families.