‘It feels like the start of something’: Reginald Dwayne Betts on his groundbreaking prison library project

When Reginald Dwayne Betts fell in love with poetry as a young man, his reading options were limited. He could not spend aimless hours in the library, nor have access to boundless titles, nor browse shelves at will. Convicted at 16, in 1997, of carjacking with a pistol in Fairfax county, Virginia, Betts was serving eight years in prison when an unknown person slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his cell door.

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

Betts, now 40, a Yale-trained lawyer and a recipient last month of the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant”, now endeavors to offer incarcerated people a similar experience with 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the country through his non-profit, Freedom Reads.

The group’s name derives from the notion that “freedom begins with a book”. Literature, especially books which represent a wide array of experiences, “give you access to possibility, they reveal worlds to you”, said Betts. The multi-layered project has shipped over 15,000 books to prisoners across the US, piloted 49 reading circles in 14 states, and begun development of curated reading lists for Freedom Libraries. Through partnerships with literary ambassadors such as the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, essayist Kiese Laymon and novelist Marlon James, Freedom Reads has also brought numerous authors into prisons to meet inmates, many of whom have never met a professional writer before.

“It’s something about presence that signals love, and prison is one of those places where it’s hard to know people love you, even when they do,” Betts said. The visits put a tangible, dynamic face on the process of writing, unvarnished by editing, part of one of Freedom Reads’s guiding beliefs: it is very difficult to become what you can’t see. “I’m proud of having writers return to prisons as a statement of love and tenderness,” said Betts. “It’s nice to see the sort of mess of a human that somebody presents, in addition to the really curated and perfected artistic portrayal of whatever they’re talking about.”

It’s something Betts wished he had seen more as an inmate in the Virginia state correctional system, when the idea of writing as a profession seemed beyond remote. “Naming myself as a writer was a destination of sorts,” he said of his early determination to hone a writing practice. “There was something powerful in that because it was really based on what I wanted to do, not what I wanted to be, it wasn’t connected to anything. It wasn’t connected to an expectation to write a book, it wasn’t connected to an expectation to be an educator, it was just connected to an expectation of: I could do this tomorrow.”

Betts kept at it – over eight years, he lived in five prisons; his reading was voracious, his writing instinctive. By the time he was freed in 2005, at 24, he had read all of John Steinbeck and Richard Wright, tore through poetry by Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and Wanda Coleman, completed a paralegal course and written, as he called it in a searing 2018 essay for the New York Times Magazine, “1,000 bad poems”.

Betts went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a masters in fine arts in poetry from Warren Wilson College, and published the poetry collections Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. His path from felon to attorney and PhD candidate at Yale Law School has been both remarkable and deeply against the odds in a nation which saddles rehabilitation from prison with unnecessary, arbitrary roadblocks.

The United States leads the world in incarceration, with 2 million people behind bars. The numbers are staggering, if usually faceless – one out of every five prisoners in the world is incarcerated in the United States, 0.7% of America’s population, one in 100 working-age adults. Betts, and the guiding purpose of Freedom Reads, has a clear vision of life in prison, usually tucked out of view — the drudgery, degradation, untapped potential. The MacArthur Fellowship provides critical visibility for the day-to-day experiences behind the statistics of mass incarceration. “I’m so glad that we’re having a nationwide conversation about mass incarceration, but we don’t talk enough about the conditions of people’s lives in prison,” he said. “I’m just trying to insert Freedom Reads and the Freedom Library into a broader conversation about that.”

What does he wish we talked more about now? “All of it, that people inside are coming home, and what does that mean to be coming home? What does that mean to prepare folks for coming home? I wish people understood the lack of opportunities and the need to make space for more opportunities,” he said.

It’s something Betts understands well — when he was first released from prison, employment opportunities were heavily circumscribed 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, by lying about his lack of employment history. In some states, a felony conviction remains an automatic dismissal on job applications or occupational 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-entering civilian life. As of 2020, according to the Sentencing Project, 5.2 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise citizens with felony convictions.

Part of the project, as well, is encouraging writers still behind bars. Betts requested John J Lennon, a journalist who is one of the very few incarcerated people to become a professional writer while in prison, to pen the forward for an edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost to be placed in Freedom Libraries. Lennon, serving 28 to life for a 2004 second-degree murder conviction, doubles the confessional analysis of Milton’s hell as a letter to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who, like governors across the nation, has the power to grant clemency to inmates at her “sole discretion”. “This is really a letter to all governors, even the president,” he writes, “because you all have so much power over prisoners, yet you can never truly know us.”

Betts hopes Freedom Reads will help communicate this “day-to-day existence is of being incarcerated. Just thinking: man, you can’t open your cell door. It’s a lot of imposition on your brain to understand, for years and years and years, that at some point, somebody’s going to tell you to go into that cell and they’re going to close 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 goal is to design, build and implement to “programs that remind us of the commonality of experience”.

Even with so much behind him – a law degree, the Connecticut bar exam, a poetry practice, starting a family, one of the most renowned intellectual honors in the nation – Betts still sees a long road ahead. “It obviously feels great,” he said of the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant, which he intends to put toward Freedom Reads, his two kids’ college funds, and lingering student debt. “But it still feels like the start of something.” With Freedom Reads, “I know there’s still so much more to do.”

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