"The years that we've lost"

At sixteen, Reginald Dwayne Betts '16JD was sentenced to nine years in prison. That's where he discovered he was a poet.

Dylan Walsh ’11MEM is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He covers science and criminal justice.

He stood at the door of his cell and called for books. Paint peeled from the walls. The narrow window had no screen, so he would hang a trash bag to keep mosquitos away, but that didn’t work. In the blaze of midsummer, after pouring water over his thin mattress and sleeping on the wet bed in boxer shorts, he would wake freshly bitten.

Sleep was escape, as were books, which is why he would stand at the door, calling. Response came in the swish and shush of a book sliding down the hallway and through the crack between his door and the concrete floor. This had become his ritual. It is how he came to read a book a night. He spent six consecutive months at a rural prison this way and ultimately more than a year in solitary.

The summer of 1998, before he turned 18, he called into the hallway. Send me a book! “What cell?” came the response. “Twenty-one.” Then the rush of a book over the floor. At his feet appeared The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall. He read Gwendolyn Brooks and Sonia Sanchez, Robert Hayden and Nikki Giovanni, works of anger and ambiguity that explained something he knew but had never been taught.

In these poems sounded the unexpressed music of his experience. He came to Etheridge Knight’s “For Freckle-Faced Gerald.” It is a short poem, five stanzas, twenty-nine lines, written in the 1960s while Knight was incarcerated in Indiana State Prison. It is about the prison rape of a sixteen-year-old boy who still possesses the glow of life, a boy thrown in as “pigmeat” / for the buzzards to eat.

More than two decades later, after Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16JD had left prison and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and his MFA from Warren Wilson College and his JD from Yale Law School, after he had published a memoir and three collections of poetry and been appointed by President Obama to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and after he had received a MacArthur “genius” grant, he would say about Knight’s poem in one of his weekly columns for the New York Times Magazine: “This is the poem that turned me into a poet.”

It was the moment when he realized a prisoner could write poetry. And it was the moment when he realized poetry could illuminate not only the most specific and intimate details of emotion, but also, simultaneously, the intricate sweep of social and historical landscapes. Poetry was a whisper and a shout.

Betts could not keep the anthology—he would eventually slide it to someone as someone had slid it to him—so he copied by longhand the poems that moved him. He began to write poems of his own. He sent them from behind the wall to literary journals, and rejection letters returned week after week. He reached out to poets and writers he admired, mostly without response, though Tony Hoagland did write back to tell Betts that his writing had promise. He filled blank pages.

Then the day came, nearer the end than the beginning of his prison sentence, when Betts received a letter from Poet Lore telling him that they wanted to publish one of his poems. He had witnessed men stabbed and shot; a boy hit in the jaw with a padlock in a sock; an old white man in the cell above his beaten to death, a nurse pounding the chest of the motionless body as the gurney rolled it away. He had lived in a supermax facility in a mountaintop crater. He carried within himself the thousands of accumulated years of confinement borne by men he had come to know as family. But that naked brutality, and the anger into which it had hardened, briefly fell away. Betts held the letter from Poet Lore in his hand and ran around the cellblock proclaiming the news. The paper in his hand waved like a passport to some new kingdom, a passport to infinite kingdoms.

Betts was born on November 5, 1980. he grew up in Suitland, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC. He was smart, garrulous, and charismatic, class treasurer at his high school, where he was also enrolled in the gifted program. “I wasn’t a tough guy in a world, in a community, where it was expected,” he says.
He kept rules for himself: I can smoke weed, but I will not sell it. Then, if I sell weed, I will not sell harder drugs. He had classmates deeply steeped in the life of the streets; one was shot to death by another teenager during what was believed to be an attempted robbery. But despite befriending these kids and brushing against the violence of their existence, Betts stayed on the sidelines. He kept good grades while skipping school. He held in his mind a vision of attending Georgia Tech for college and majoring in engineering.

On December 7, 1996, shortly after turning 16, Betts rode with four other people in a sedan to Springfield Mall in Fairfax, Virginia. He asked for a pistol and the driver, a stranger to Betts, gave him one. Betts held the gun while he and a friend wandered the parking lot. It was the only time in his life he held a gun; it felt weightless against his palm. They found a man asleep in his car and Betts tapped twice on the driver-side window with the pistol’s barrel. He demanded the man get out of the car and hand over his keys and wallet. He and his friend drove away in the stolen vehicle.

That entire night, Betts says, he felt like a deer in headlights. He knew that he was doing something that would change his life irrevocably and he knew that he did not want to be doing that thing. The police caught him the next day as he and his friend tried to purchase clothes with the stolen card. A dozen cops were pointing firearms at his head, and the guns were all he could think of. He confessed immediately because he was young and was guilty and didn’t have any more lies.

Betts’s mother was working on the day of his arrest. He was home when she left in the morning and absent when she returned. She contacted friends and family but couldn’t locate him. Late that night, she received a call from her son, her only child, the boy who in the evening before bed would fill a glass of water and place it on her nightstand. He explained he was locked up. But don’t worry, he said. I’ll take care of it.

It was a particular moment for US criminal justice policy. States had been building and filling prisons apace since Nixon’s war on drugs. The incarcerated population essentially doubled during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill provided federal incentives for states to build more prisons and enact tougher sentencing guidelines. One year before Betts’s arrest, Princeton professor John DiIulio Jr. prophesied an impending wave of violent crime committed by ruthless, remorseless “superpredators.” It was a potent and racist formula parroted by national media. A Newsweek headline asked, “Should we cage the new breed of vicious kids?”

Betts’s case was automatically transferred to adult criminal court, where he faced the possibility of life plus thirteen years for carjacking, attempted robbery, and a firearm charge. His Aunt Pandora and two family friends took the stand on his behalf, explaining he was a good kid troubled by the absence of a father. Before announcing a sentence, the Honorable F. Bruce Bach asked Betts if he had anything to say. After apologizing to his family and the victim, he disputed the arguments made to cover for his actions. The absence of a father had nothing to do with his crime, he said. Admitting to this line of reasoning would impugn his mother’s efforts to raise him right, would implicate her in the carjacking. His mother and father had nothing to do with the crime.

The men and the women in the courtroom listened to him apologize. They listened to the judge’s closing comments as he explained that he had no illusions that prison would do Betts any good. And then, though he had it within his discretion to sentence Betts to three years in a juvenile facility, the judge gave him nine years in adult prison.

Betts chronicles these nine years in his first book, the memoir A Question of Freedom, published in 2009. The book begins with his arrest at sixteen and ends with his release at twenty-four. It is “a confession of what it was like to be in prison,” he writes—the echoing shouts of men, the humiliation of strip searches, the concrete beds of segregation, the spades games and sets of pushups, and the dreamy beliefs floating among adolescents sentenced to years or decades behind bars, him included, that the nightmare of incarceration was a simple misunderstanding to be corrected in short order, that they would be home by Christmas, or if not Christmas then by their birthdays, or if not by their birthdays then by prom. The book confesses to the trauma of exile and violence, and to the fathomless depths of shame. Betts’s mother spent the first two years of his imprisonment telling people that he was in college.

No word exists for the years that we’ve lost, Betts writes in “Essay on Reentry.” The poem is dedicated to Fats, Juvie, and Star, three kids he met while incarcerated. “I remember having acne. We went through puberty together,” says Fats, who was sentenced as a sixteen-year-old to fifty-three years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. (His real name is Rojai Fentress.) The poem tells of a meal in 2017 when Fentress sat down in mess across from Star. “I noticed how old I was because I saw it in his face,” Fentress recalls. “He had lost his hair, my beard was salt-and-pepper, I saw it in Juvie two tables over from us.” Fats, describing a moment he’d shared with men he’s known for decades, was thinking about all that loss.

Betts went to law school intending to become a public defender. By that time, he had been out for almost a decade. He was married with two children and had graduated from college and resided in three different states and published two collections of poetry. He had worked as a retailer and a teacher and an artist. It felt like he had lived several lives while these men sailed in a capsule outside of experience. He began visiting the Virginia parole board and compiling petitions. He helped Fentress get out. He helped Juvie get out. He helped Star and Luke get out. He’s fighting for Markeese and Anthony.

Many others remain strangers to Betts, beyond his reach. For them, he is building a different bridge to freedom. Supported by a $5.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he started Freedom Reads, an organization that is opening small libraries in prisons, juvenile facilities, and immigrant detention centers across all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. The libraries stock 500 carefully curated books that span a range of genres. They include the fiction of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf and Edwidge Danticat; essays by Audre Lorde; The Iliad alongside Andre Agassi’s memoir alongside books of poetry. Many of these works had conjured vibrant worlds for Betts within the intellectual and moral void of prison.

The first library was installed last winter in MCI-Norfolk, Massachusetts, a prison where Malcolm X did time. A sinuous bookshelf made of plyboo (bamboo plywood) occupies a cell emptied of its bed and toilet. There is a mural on the wall of a young Black child reading a book. Flying from that book is a flock of winged books. Under a cloud-studded sky, the kid reclines against an oversized copy of The Black Poets. When Betts asked the prison’s superintendent why he agreed to the project, the man said that he did it because in his twenty-five years working in corrections he had never once seen something beautiful inside a prison.

But Betts chafes at the tidy arc of this redemption story, at the notion that he has made it, has been reborn, has been corrected. He resents our country’s reliance on this lazy and pernicious trope.

Yes, he owns a house with a picket fence. He plays basketball with his sons in the driveway. He gave the commencement address at Wesleyan University in 2021 after receiving an honorary doctorate. He has read and discussed his poetry, now critically acclaimed, at the Library of Congress. Some time ago, he was on the phone with Mary Helen Washington, a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He was wandering the buildings of Yale as they talked. He watched his children run the hallways on campus and he voiced the simple but profound fact that they would never encounter the obstacles that he had at their age.

“Mister—no, Doctor Reginald Dwayne Betts,” Fentress says, reflecting on the trajectory of a man he first met in receiving at Southampton Correctional Center. “This is my comrade. If he can accomplish these things, well, we may not be able to do exactly what it is he’s done, but he’s laid a path to show what can be done with your life if you apply yourself.”

And yet, despite what Betts has accomplished, his life remains fastened to the deadweight of history. “The experience of prison has fundamentally consumed my existence in ways that are troubling, and depressing, and inescapable,” Betts once said. The institution, long in his past, still ordains most of what he writes and says and does. “The measure of time that I served is not a true reflection of the effect that incarceration has had on my life.”

When he first came home, Betts made a naive pact with himself that he would keep his history to himself. It was a pact quickly broken. I just came home from prison, he explained, when after a long conversation about literature with the owner of a bookstore, the man asked Betts where he’d gone to college. I just came home from prison, he said, to the coordinator of the honors program at Prince George’s Community College. Yes, I was convicted of a felony, he told the admissions officer at Howard University after he’d been offered a full-ride academic scholarship. (The scholarship never came through.) A carjacking, he told the men and women interviewing him for jobs. I’m a felon, he wrote in his application to Yale Law School.

Felon. This is why the Connecticut Bar Examining Committee sent him a letter explaining that, despite his passing the bar exam, and despite the citizen he had become in the dozen years since his release, he would need to prove his “character and fitness” to practice as an attorney. He wept upon reading that letter. His older son, Micah, was shaken when a kindergarten classmate asked about his father’s past—a past Micah did not yet know. His younger son, Miles, was shaken the day Betts was ultimately sworn into the Connecticut Bar. Betts turned to the small crowd of friends and family gathered in the New Haven courthouse and, without thinking, noted that the last time his mother saw him in court he was being sentenced to nine years in prison. Confusion crossed his son’s face. Prisoner, inmate, felon, convict, Betts writes. Why pretend these words don’t seize our breath?

Betts fears too that his particular story makes mercy conditional on success. It was precisely because of his education that colleagues wrote letters of support when the Connecticut Bar denied him admittance. The gulf between the supermax and his stature today makes him a clean-cut spokesperson for second chances. But, Betts says, we should be equally indignant about the neighbor with a GED who can’t get a job at Target because of his record. “I hope there is room in our psyche and our days to be incensed about that as well,” he said in a 2020 interview.

Nor does discussion of post-prison redemption illuminate anything about the experience of almost two million people, many convicted of violent crimes, presently incarcerated. What should we do with that population, Betts wonders? Who should be locked up and for how long? Should unsanctioned harm by individuals always or sometimes or never be met with sanctioned harm by the state? “When you talk about really complex issues around crime and violence the truth is troubling,” he says. “It requires give on both sides and most people only want one side to give.”

Poetry is the tool he uses to excavate this complexity. He writes of domestic violence, addiction, and homicide, of love between men and women and love between mothers and sons. He writes about fathers and fatherlessness and Tamir Rice’s death, about abasement and race.

He writes of the multitudes he contains. And he sings his poetry when he reads it, drawing long the last syllables of words. He pauses as if the words themselves need breath. It sounds like he is letting us, the audience, in on a secret, making us complicit in a set of facts we refuse to confront and a series of lives we refuse to see. It sounds like an incantation. Tell me. What name for this thing that haunts, this thing we become he chants, a soft beat between pairings and triplets of words. It sounds, by saying the words just right, as though he might escape them.