‘Sounds like the start of something’: Reginald Dwayne Betts on his groundbreaking prison library project | Books

When Reginald Dwayne Betts fell in love with poetry in his youth, his reading options were limited. He couldn’t spend aimless hours in the library, or have access to unlimited titles, or browse the shelves at will. Sentenced to 16 years in 1997 for theft of a car with a pistol in Fairfax County, Va., Betts was serving eight years in prison when an unknown man slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his doorstep. cell.

The book opened his mind, showed him things he didn’t know were possible. He provided the gateway to a writing practice, a portal to a world outside his cell, a model for envisioning a future beyond prison.

Betts, now 40, a Yale-trained attorney and a recipient last month of the prestigious MacArthur ‘genius grant”, Now strives to offer incarcerated people a similar experience with 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the country through its non-profit organization, Freedom readings.

The name of the group derives from the idea that “freedom begins with a book”. Literature, especially books that represent a wide range of experiences, “give you access to possibilities, they reveal worlds to you,” Betts said. The tiered project shipped more than 15,000 books to prisoners across the United States, piloted 49 reading circles in 14 states, and began development of curated reading lists for Liberty Libraries. Through partnerships with literary ambassadors Like journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, essayist Kiese Laymon, and novelist Marlon James, Freedom Reads has also brought many writers to prison to meet inmates, many of whom have never met a professional writer before.

“It’s something in the presence that signals love, and jail is one of those places where it’s hard to know people love you, even when they do,” Betts said. The visits give a tangible and dynamic face to the writing process, unvarnished by the editing, being part of one of the guiding beliefs of Freedom Reads: it is very difficult to become what one cannot see. “I am proud that writers are returning to prison as a declaration of love and tenderness,” Betts said. “It’s nice to see the kind of mess of a human that someone presents, besides the really organized and polished artistic representation of everything they’re talking about.”

Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photography: readings of freedom

This is something Betts would have liked to see more of as an inmate in the Virginia state corrections system, when the idea of ​​writing as a profession seemed more than distant. “Appointing myself as a writer was kind of a destination,” he said of his initial determination to perfect a writing practice. “There was something powerful about that because it was really based on what I wanted to do, not who I wanted to be, it wasn’t related to anything. It was not linked to an expectation to write a book, it was not linked to an expectation of being an educator, it was just linked to an expectation of: I could do it tomorrow. “

Betts persevered – for eight years he lived in five prisons; his reading was voracious, his writing instinctive. By the time he was released in 2005, at age 24, he had read everything John Steinbeck and Richard Wright, shredded the poetry of Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight and Wanda Coleman, completed a paralegal course and wrote, as he l ‘was calling in a hot 2018 trial for the New York Times Magazine, “1000 bad poems”.

Betts went on to receive a BA from the University of Maryland and an MA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, and published the Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm books of poetry and the thesis Question of Freedom. : A Memory of learning, survival and age in prison. His journey from criminal to lawyer and doctoral candidate at Yale Law School has been both remarkable and deeply against all odds in a nation that imposes unnecessary and arbitrary roadblocks on prison rehabilitation.

The United States leads the world in incarceration, with 2 million people behind bars. The Numbers are narcotic, although generally faceless – one in five prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the United States, 0.7% of the American population, one in 100 adults of working age. Betts, and the guiding lens of Freedom Reads, has a clear view of prison life, usually hidden – the drudgery, the degradation, the untapped potential. The MacArthur Fellowship provides critical visibility into the everyday experiences behind mass incarceration statistics. “I’m so glad we’re having a nationwide conversation about mass incarceration, but we don’t talk enough about the living conditions of people in prison,” he said. “I’m just trying to squeeze Freedom Reads and the Freedom Library into a larger conversation about this.”

What would he like us to talk about now? “All of this, let the people inside come home, and what does it mean to come home?” What does it mean to prepare people to come home? I want people to understand the lack of opportunities and the need to make room for more opportunities, ”he said.

Reginald Dwayne Betts performs his play
Photography: Princeton University, Lewis Center for the Arts, Jonathan Sweeney (2021)

This is something Betts understands well – when he was first released from prison employment opportunities were severely limited by his record. He was one of the lucky ones – he got a job at a paint store in Maryland, as he recalls in the Times essay, lying about his lack of work experience. In some states, a felony conviction remains an automatic dismissal on job applications or professional licenses. A handful of states still enforce bans on convicted felons from receiving food stamps or housing assistance – potentially crucial steps on the ladder to re-enter civilian life. From 2020, according to the sentencing project, 5.2 million Americans have been banned from voting because of laws that deprive citizens of their civil rights convicted of felony.

Part of the project is also to encourage writers still behind bars. Betts asked John J Lennon, a journalist who is one of the very few incarcerated people to become a professional prison writer, to write the foreword to an edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to be placed in the Libraries of Freedom. Lennon, serving 28 years for a second degree murder conviction in 2004, doubles Milton’s denominational analysis of Hell as a letter to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who, like governors across the country, has the power to grant clemency to inmates at her home “sole discretion”. “It’s really a letter to all governors, even the president,” he wrote, “because you all have so much power over prisoners, but you can never really know us. “

Betts hopes Freedom Reads will help communicate that “everyday existence is about being incarcerated. I’m just thinking, man, you can’t open your cell door. It’s a lot of imposition on your brain to figure out, for years and years and years, that at some point someone is going to tell you to enter that cell and they are going to shut the door behind you. .

“It’s so deeply, deeply, deeply brutal as an existence, and I think people should know that so that we only use it when absolutely necessary,” he added. “And right now we don’t live in a world where we only use it when absolutely necessary.”

The aim is to design, build and implement “programs that remind us of the community of experience”.

Even with so much behind him – a law degree, the Connecticut Bar exam, a practice of poetry, raising a family, one of the nation’s most renowned intellectual honors – Betts still sees a long way. to browse. “It’s obviously very nice,” he said of the $ 625,000 MacArthur Fellowship, which he intends to spend on Freedom Reads, his two children’s college funds and to persistent student debt. “But it always feels like the start of something.” With Freedom Reads, “I know there is still a long way to go. “


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