When Reginald Dwayne Betts fell in really like with poetry as a young male, his looking at selections ended up constrained. He could not devote aimless several hours in the library, nor have entry to boundless titles, nor look through cabinets at will. Convicted at 16, in 1997, of carjacking with a pistol in Fairfax county, Virginia, Betts was serving eight yrs in jail when an unidentified person slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets under his mobile door.
The book opened his mind, confirmed him things he didn’t know have been feasible. It offered the entryway to a creating follow, a portal to a earth outside his cell, a design to envision a foreseeable future outside of jail.
Betts, now 40, a Yale-experienced lawyer and a recipient previous thirty day period of the prestigious MacArthur “genius grant”, now endeavors to supply incarcerated individuals a similar working experience with 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the country by way of his non-profit, Independence Reads.
The group’s identify derives from the notion that “freedom starts with a book”. Literature, particularly books which symbolize a extensive array of ordeals, “give you entry to likelihood, they expose worlds to you”, mentioned Betts. The multi-layered project has delivered around 15,000 guides to prisoners across the US, piloted 49 looking at circles in 14 states, and begun advancement of curated studying lists for Flexibility Libraries. Via partnerships with literary ambassadors these as the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, essayist Kiese Laymon and novelist Marlon James, Freedom Reads has also brought several authors into prisons to satisfy inmates, many of whom have under no circumstances satisfied a expert writer right before.
“It’s some thing about presence that signals adore, and prison is a single of individuals destinations in which it’s really hard to know people today adore you, even when they do,” Betts said. The visits set a tangible, dynamic encounter on the approach of creating, unvarnished by modifying, part of one particular of Independence Reads’s guiding beliefs: it is quite tricky to develop into what you can’t see. “I’m proud of getting writers return to prisons as a assertion of enjoy and tenderness,” explained Betts. “It’s good to see the kind of mess of a human that someone provides, in addition to the genuinely curated and perfected inventive portrayal of whatever they are talking about.”
Reginald Dwayne Betts. Photograph: Flexibility Reads
It’s some thing Betts wished he experienced witnessed a lot more as an inmate in the Virginia state correctional process, when the idea of composing as a job seemed outside of remote. “Naming myself as a writer was a destination of kinds,” he mentioned of his early resolve to hone a creating exercise. “There was some thing impressive in that simply because it was truly centered on what I desired to do, not what I wished to be, it wasn’t linked to anything at all. It wasn’t linked to an expectation to create a guide, it was not connected to an expectation to be an educator, it was just related to an expectation of: I could do this tomorrow.”
Betts stored at it – about eight many years, he lived in five prisons his looking at was voracious, his composing instinctive. By the time he was freed in 2005, at 24, he experienced examine all of John Steinbeck and Richard Wright, tore by way of poetry by Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and Wanda Coleman, completed a paralegal course and created, as he referred to as it in a searing 2018 essay for the New York Instances Magazine, “1,000 poor poems”.
Betts went on to make a bachelor’s degree from the College of Maryland and a masters in fantastic arts in poetry from Warren Wilson Higher education, and revealed the poetry collections Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Have Palm and the memoir Concern of Liberty: A Memoir of Understanding, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. His route from felon to lawyer and PhD applicant at Yale Law University has been equally remarkable and deeply against the odds in a nation which saddles rehabilitation from prison with avoidable, arbitrary roadblocks.
The United States potential customers the earth in incarceration, with 2 million people today at the rear of bars. The quantities are staggering, if generally faceless – a person out of each 5 prisoners in the planet is incarcerated in the United States, .7% of America’s inhabitants, one particular in 100 operating-age grown ups. Betts, and the guiding reason of Liberty Reads, has a clear eyesight of everyday living in prison, typically tucked out of perspective — the drudgery, degradation, untapped prospective. The MacArthur Fellowship provides essential visibility for the working day-to-working day experiences guiding the studies of mass incarceration. “I’m so glad that we’re possessing a nationwide discussion about mass incarceration, but we really don’t talk more than enough about the conditions of people’s life in prison,” he explained. “I’m just attempting to insert Flexibility Reads and the Flexibility Library into a broader conversation about that.”
What does he want we talked extra about now? “All of it, that men and women within are coming home, and what does that suggest to be coming residence? What does that necessarily mean to get ready people for coming house? I wish men and women recognized the lack of alternatives and the will need to make area for more alternatives,” he reported.
Photograph: Princeton College, Lewis Center for the Arts, Jonathan Sweeney (2021)
It’s something Betts understands properly — when he was initially unveiled from prison, work alternatives were being closely circumscribed by his record. He was 1 of the blessed kinds – he bought a position at a paint shop in Maryland, as he recalls in the Situations essay, by lying about his deficiency of employment historical past. In some states, a felony conviction remains an automated dismissal on position programs or occupational licenses. A handful of states even now enforce bans on convicted felons from getting foods stamps or housing help – probably crucial methods on the ladder to re-coming into civilian existence. As of 2020, in accordance to the Sentencing Project, 5.2 million Us residents have been prohibited from voting owing to rules that disenfranchise citizens with felony convictions.
Element of the challenge, as perfectly, is encouraging writers even now behind bars. Betts asked for John J Lennon, a journalist who is just one of the really handful of incarcerated persons to come to be a expert writer when in jail, to pen the ahead for an edition of John Milton’s Paradise Shed to be placed in Flexibility Libraries. Lennon, serving 28 to existence for a 2004 next-diploma murder conviction, doubles the confessional analysis of Milton’s hell as a letter to New York Governor Kathy Hochul, who, like governors throughout the country, has the power to grant clemency to inmates at her “sole discretion”. “This is actually a letter to all governors, even the president,” he writes, “because you all have so much power around prisoners, still you can hardly ever genuinely know us.”
Betts hopes Independence Reads will assistance connect this “day-to-day existence is of becoming incarcerated. Just contemplating: person, you can’t open up your cell door. It is a great deal of imposition on your mind to realize, for yrs and years and decades, that at some level, somebody’s heading to inform you to go into that cell and they’re going to shut the doorway guiding you.
“It’s so deeply, deeply, deeply brutal as an existence, and I assume folks must know that so that we only use it when unquestionably vital,” he extra. “And proper now, we never dwell in a planet in which we only use it when unquestionably required.”
The objective is to design, develop and implement to “programs that remind us of the commonality of experience”.
Even with so a great deal driving him – a law diploma, the Connecticut bar test, a poetry observe, starting up a loved ones, a person of the most renowned intellectual honors in the country – Betts continue to sees a lengthy road forward. “It clearly feels good,” he mentioned of the $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship grant, which he intends to set toward Flexibility Reads, his two kids’ faculty funds, and lingering college student debt. “But it however feels like the start out of anything.” With Freedom Reads, “I know there’s still so much far more to do.”