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A Poet is Filling Prisons with Literature

by | Mar 4, 2024 | News

At age 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison. After surviving solitary confinement, he is now a poet, lawyer and award-winning MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. He’s also a man on a mission: in 2020, with a grant from the Mellon Foundation, he founded Freedom Reads, a first-of-its-kind initiative that provides books to those incarcerated via 500-book libraries installed in prison housing units and dormitories.

For Betts, his first introduction to the arts was by way of a sports encyclopaedia. He recalls, in second grade, reading about basketball legends in a moment that has stuck with him through adulthood. “What Freedom Reads is trying to invent that hadn’t really been there before is a possibility, which is not to say that possibility didn’t exist in the lives of these men and women that we work with,” he told Bowen. “But you want to create a moment where people start to recognize that something that was always there [like reading], that they hadn’t noticed, matters more than anything.”

The Freedom Reads libraries include books such as Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” and Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote.” Mixing contemporary and classic authors in the libraries “creates these moments of spontaneous joy” that can’t be replicated, Betts says.

He recounted a story of an incarcerated young person noticing “The Odyssey” in the library and excitedly sharing that it’s his favourite book, kickstarting a conversation with a Freedom Reads team member about Homer.

“What’s going on is these kids are experiencing a child and an adult having shared joy over books,” Betts says. “The collection is filled with what you love, what we believe you’ll love, and what we believe will inspire you to have fierce arguments for the rest of your life about whether or not this Shakespeare book should be in [a collection].”

 

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