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A Canon for the American Prisoner

John J. Lennon, a conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts
“There’s something critically important that books do for us that we can’t get anywhere else—because so much of prison is trying to master the art of becoming.”

Karsten Moran/Redux and Mamadi Doumbouya

John J. Lennon and Reginald Dwayne Betts

In 2001, Reginald Dwayne Betts was about five years into a nine-year sentence in a Virginia prison for a carjacking he’d committed at age sixteen. That was the year that I shot and killed a man on a Brooklyn street, when I was twenty-four years old. I am now twenty years into a sentence of twenty-eight years-to-life. In that time, I’ve become a journalist writing from prison. Since his release, Betts has become an acclaimed poet and attorney. His 2018 article for The New York Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to working lawyer won the National Magazine Award. His most recent collection of poetry, Felon, explores the post-incarceration experience; just last month, he was appointed one of the 2021 MacArthur fellows (an award commonly known as the “genius grant”).

I currently live in Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison set in New York’s Catskill Mountains. It was a creative writing workshop in Attica, of all places, that led me toward my vocation. In 2019, I wrote a review of Felon and Betts saw it, responding in a tweet: “I’m certain no one has written anything about my writing and life that has hit me so hard in the gut.” With this connection, Dwayne and I subsequently became friends. (Currently, in his capacity as a lawyer, he is pursuing a clemency petition for me, among others.)

Through Betts, I have become involved in the initiative he created in 2019, Freedom Reads, to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons and juvenile detention centers across the United States and Puerto Rico. It’s a project close to his heart.

“I did time where knowledge was always obtained a book at a time,” Betts told me, when I called him recently, “and a lot of the knowledge was bootleg, things I’d later discard as absurd, things that sowed hate or envy or just misinformation.”

Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets and John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers were two books that came around on the cart when he was in solitary confinement. Those two will likely be among the titles in the five-hundred-book collections that Freedom Reads is putting together, the first to be installed in Massachusetts’s Norfolk (where Malcolm X once served time) and Concord, with five by the end of 2021, and Louisiana’s Angola soon to follow.  

When Betts got out of prison, in 2005, he enrolled at Prince George’s Community College and took a job at Karibu Books, a bookstore in Bowie, Maryland. He started a book club there, aiming to encourage boys to read, which soon brought in groups of kids aged between six and sixteen on Sunday afternoons to talk about writers from August Wilson to Walter Dean Myers.

Betts went on to the University of Maryland at College Park and earned his bachelor’s degree, then got an MFA from Warren Wilson College and began his writing career. Before long, he was a published author: his books include A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2009) and the poetry collections Shahid Reads His Own Palm (2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (2015). Now he’s pursuing a PhD at Yale Law School.

Today, I can be sure that whenever I call from the prison yard, Dwayne will always pick up. We talk about the magazine pieces we’re writing, the solo theater piece he’s working on. We’ve become writing partners, keeping each other honest with identical due dates for our book manuscripts. And, of course, we talk about the Freedom Reads library. His latest inspiration for the project has been to enlist an array of journalists, novelists, and poets to write new forewords, in the form of letters, for sixteen classics that Freedom Reads will publish under its own imprint as new editions for the collection.

Nicholas Dawidoff is writing a letter for Great Expectations, Jamaica Kincaid is contributing one for Jane Eyre, as is George Saunders for Dubliners. The list of contributors also includes Nikole Hannah-Jones, Marlon James, Laila Lalami, and Kiese Laymon. (I am writing a letter for Paradise Lost, so resonant with themes of envy, pride, disobedience, and redemption.) Betts’s hope is that these new editions, along with access to many other well-chosen books, will lead people in prison to read these classic works of literature and find a way to the imaginative freedom great writing offers. What follows is an edited transcript of our recent conversation about what reading in prison can mean.


John J. Lennon: In prison, we don’t have the Internet, but here there is a library. How do you see Freedom Reads fitting into that?

Reginald Dwayne Betts: You’ve got a lot of prisons that don’t have a library. Then, with those that do, you might have conflicts of access—with work assignments, a family or friend might come visit, you may want to work out at the weight pile during library times.

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But what do we mean by access? One narrative is access to justice: having a library on the compound that you could go to for information or other resources. Another story of access is trying to create something similar to what I have in my home. I’ve got access to a couple thousand books at my fingertips, both things I’ve read and things I haven’t.

What does it mean to create that for somebody inside? We’re building a beautiful structure with carved bookshelves and seating arrangements in the prison housing units. It becomes a locus for intellectual conversations. But a library is also meant to be aspirational, and it has to be curated.

Please speak to that.

I did eight and a half years, and no prison ever told me, “This is the library, and within this set of curated books, you’ve got six written by somebody who was in prison—which means that you could write a book.” In the Freedom Library, we’ve got a book written by people who never come close to a college education, a book by a woman who didn’t read her first book until she was fifty. Which means, if you’re fifty, you could still write a book.

I went to prison a kid, and books literally saved my life.

I’ve been in prisons where watching TV in the cell fills huge parts of the day. Conversations come through the bars about movies, ball games, the news on CNN. But will these microlibraries give people other options?

If you went to pick up or return a book, and somebody was over there looking at what you were doing, they might ask you what the book’s about. All of a sudden, you have an opportunity to have different kinds of conversations. More importantly, people can build for themselves a whole diet of literature.

Everyone needs to escape sometimes—in their minds. But to read involves examining the deeper way people live their lives. That is happening in fiction in a way that it’s not on television (except in the best kind of TV drama). There’s something that books do for us that we just can’t get anywhere else. This is critically important for people in prison because so much of prison is trying to master the art of becoming: Who do you want to become?

I love “the art of becoming.” John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers did this for you, I know. And I think this is the kind of vibe we want for everyone else in here. But why did Wideman’s book speak to you?

We talk about prison a lot now, but Wideman’s book came out in 1984. Part of the writing was saying, “My brother has a voice that matters.” Wideman’s writing is elegant: it has these small moments where he reminds you how sometimes you think it’s all about you, but it’s really about somebody else.

I read Brothers and Keepers in 2000 or 2001. Wideman’s brother Robert was still in prison when I was reading the book. He only just recently got out. The book shows us the burden of time, and how as a society we don’t really take seriously what it means to leave people inside prison for so long. The book, about his brother’s incarceration, spans my life, my incarceration, and my becoming a lawyer. Books are deepened over time because of your relationship with them, and where you are when you read them and return to them. It’s only in books that you wind up seeing this mirror of who you are.

It’s worth noting that your next book is with Scribner—and isn’t your editor there Wideman’s, too?

I think this says something about the bigger impossibilities of the men and women who’ve done time in prison—the fact that Wideman and I share the same editor. (If I were one of these dudes who cried, I’d be weeping.)

Well, it is inspiring.

You know that I wrote an introduction to Brothers and Keepers when Robby came home, and it was in the form of a letter. The point is that his book really tracked my journey, I felt—and then I got a chance to write an intro for it. That, for me, was…just wow.

So is that where you got the idea to ask well-known authors to write introductions as letters for the Freedom Library editions?

Well, Mitchell Jackson—a contributing writer for Esquire and a Pulitzer winner this year, who served time in prison—and I both have a close relationship with Wideman’s work. Mitchell actually knows him. It was his idea for me to do that intro as a letter.

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What I really wanted to do was just talk to him [Wideman]. I knew I was in no position to write a review of Wideman’s book. I try to play my position. A part of me felt: man, everything I needed you to do for me you did with those books you wrote.

The way you evaluate a letter is wholly different: it is personal in a way that goes to the heart of things. And so, to answer your question, I wanted to be able to couple voices like yours with others, like Marlon James’s, with Jamaica Kincaid, with George Saunders.

Even to be mentioned with those authors is an honor. Let me ask you this: With all the controversy going on nowadays about what people teach or don’t teach students in school—whether it’s critical race theory or removing language from a Mark Twain book—is this on your radar as you select books for this canon for the American prisoner?

[Laughs] I hadn’t even thought about it that way—that’s what they should call this article: the canon for the American prisoner. It’s a dope title.

I don’t take a lot of the outrage—about what we teach and don’t teach—seriously. You’ll have people arguing that we shouldn’t teach Huckleberry Finn and, at the same time, you have people raging against something like the 1619 Project. [By way of disclosure, Betts was published in the 1619 Project and has a poem in the resulting, soon-to-be-released book.] I think literature offers far more meaningful conversations. The Freedom Library list is heavy on books that can change your life; it’s not heavy on books trying to make an argument on what the world is and what the world should be.

I ask the question because prison can be a really racist place, where people tend to stick with their own identity group, and that’s primarily out of ignorance. Do you think this curated collection will resonate with white prisoners?

Obviously, you and I know the selection will resonate. We’ve got Wideman and McBride, but we also have Frank McCourt and Mary Karr.

The queen of memoir!

And we’ve got Tobias Wolff, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ulysses Grant, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, Robert Caro, Lucille Clifton, [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, [Victor] Hugo, [Isabelle] Allende, [Herman] Melville…. So the selection will relate to people in the yard who are searching for ways to discover who they are.

About six months ago, you asked me to write this introductory letter for John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But first you were giving me F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why did you change your mind?

That’s interesting. The world had rejected Gatsby and forgot about him, and he found a way to come back and make the people he’d always wanted to love him love him. But Paradise Lost is about making you reckon with your past. And Milton makes the devil a character worth rapping with. I wanted to see if your mind wrestled with the complexities that I think exist in that piece.

At first, I found myself relating to Satan’s soaring rhetoric. He’s taking God’s inventory and rationalizing. As a writer, I’ve assembled my own soaring rhetoric, I’d like to think, taking on the prison system. But as I get into the second narrative of the book—Adam and Eve and the fall of man—I started to shift my thinking.

I do think Satan is compelling. But one of the questions is, how do we respond to what we’ve done, especially somebody like me or you? One of the beefs Satan has is that he doesn’t think he was wrong. He ain’t begging for mercy. It’s a burden because then you’ve got to deal with regret and remorse. Satan doesn’t have regrets. But who wants to live a life with no regrets?

That’s not the life I live. At the beginning of my letter, which I write to the governor of New York, I frame paradise as freedom and prison as hell. Then I kind of take the poem for a walk in my mind and discuss its deeper themes to show the governor that a prisoner is capable of this. But by the end of the letter, I don’t look at freedom as paradise and prison as hell. I don’t see myself getting out as this glorious thing.

There’s a point, at the end of the poem, when the angel Michael tells Adam, “That ye may live, which will be many days,/Both in one faith unanimous though sad,/With cause for evils past…”

I think that’s actually a radical point. One version of it is thinking about what it means to have lost paradise. But the other version is thinking about what it means to carry this burden that won’t leave you. And it’s rough, honestly, because society doesn’t let you forget whatever you did to end up in prison. And independently of that, you might not let yourself forget it either.

Maybe that’s one thing I will say the book doesn’t offer an answer to: What does it mean to have to walk with that?

But I also quote the angel Michael talking to Adam, telling him, “To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess/A paradise within thee, happier far.” Maybe this is what you aspire to achieve for us with Freedom Reads.

This is what Freedom Reads is about. It’s creating opportunities for the conversation that goes: “Yo, you should check this book out: Paradise Lost.” “Nah, I ain’t trying to read that.” “Yo, John wrote the intro. Check that joint out, man! He actually mapped it out. This is about what we dealing with.”

When we read a book in community, your reaction may be: “I think the book means this.” To which, I’m saying: “I don’t know, man; maybe it doesn’t mean that. Maybe it means this.” And voicing your opinion about that gives the book room to become something else, and gives us room to become something else.

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