One night in 1996, shortly after his 16th birthday, Reginald Dwayne Betts, an honors student at a high school in Maryland, made the worst decision of his life: He joined a friend and a few people he barely knew and left. looking for someone. steal.
Later that night, Betts pointed a borrowed gun at a man in a car at a northern Virginia mall and, with a friend, took the victim’s wallet and keys and drove off in his car. Less than 24 hours later, he was arrested; several months later, he was tried and convicted as an adult, with the judge handing him a nine-year prison sentence, part of which was solitary confinement.
But 25 years later, Betts, 41, has changed her life in the most dramatic way possible. Today he is a public defense attorney, working on his JD at Yale University, and an acclaimed writer with a memoir, three books of poetry, and numerous long-running journalism articles to his credit. He also taught poetry and previously founded a book club for at-risk young men.
He’s also a regular speaker, and for the past few years has run ‘Freedom Reads’, a program that brings books to prisons – because, he says, reading and writing saved his life. .
Betts, now also a MacArthur Scholar, has also adapted his latest collection of poems, “Felon”, for a solo theatrical performance that examines a multitude of questions: the effect of incarceration on identity, the power of the written , the importance of forgiveness, and the legal work he has done to free others in prison.
On Tuesday, April 19 at 7 p.m., Betts will present his play at Smith College’s John M. Greene Hall, in a performance sponsored by the college’s Poetry Center and a number of other campus programs, including the Jandon Center for Community Engagement. . The production is free and open to the public, and Betts will sign copies of “Felon” afterwards.
Matt Donovan, director of Smith’s Poetry Center, says the center has been inviting poets to campus for years to give readings. This year, the center was looking to do something different, he noted, in part because of the college’s current “Year of Democracies” initiative, a campus-wide project designed to examine democracies. from around the world through programs, courses and events at the school.
“I knew of Dwayne’s work and really admired him, and I thought that given his personal experience and his work to reform the criminal justice system, he would be a perfect fit for the [Year of Democracies] theme,” Donovan said. “I was excited about the idea of him adapting ‘Felon’ for a play.”
Nancy Zigler is co-director of the college’s Center for Community Engagement, which works with students, faculty and local community partners on projects designed to promote social change. She says her office, located in the same building as the Poetry Center, has worked with the center in the past to plan events of mutual interest, and the idea of bringing Betts to campus made sense to her and her colleagues. .
“I think students are really responding to his message that education and reading gives you a lot more access to the world,” said Zigler, who notes that some Smith students linked to the Center for Community Engagement are, like Betts, involved in book supply projects. to jails.
In her 2010 book “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” Betts reflects on her crime and how developing her love of language by writing poetry while in prison helped her. given a way to think about a future — and an identity that went beyond that of a young convict who, even then, didn’t quite understand how he had managed to waste his life.
As Betts said in 2020 on The New York Times podcast “The Sunday Read,” when he went to court and testified about his carjacking, “I could barely express my regret. I couldn’t explain how a confluence of bad decisions and opportunities led me to become a caricature of a black boy in America.
His path to redemption began after a stranger slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” under his cell door, prompting him to start writing.
After serving about eight years of his sentence — he completed his GED in prison — Betts found work at a bookstore in Maryland, later earned a master’s degree in creative writing, and then a law degree from Yale University. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed him to the Federal Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
In his poetry, he made further explorations of his experiences and wrote about the violence in prisons, the large number of people of color behind bars, the lingering scars of incarceration, and the failures of the justice system to provide justice. equal representation to many defendants.
In “Felon,” winner of the NAACP Image Award and finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Award, Betts also reflects on his life today as a husband and father in poems such as “When I Think of Tamir Rice When I’m Driving,” a powerful work that recalls the fatal 2014 Cleveland police shooting of a 12-year-old black boy who was playing with a toy gun.
“That’s how misery sounds: my boys // play in the backseat juxtaposed with / the murder of a twelve-year-old boy plays / in my head…I’m a father who drives / his black sons at school and the death / of a Black boy rides a shotgun and this // could be a funeral procession.
Betts could not be reached for an interview. But on his website, he describes the theatrical adaptation of his recent poetry – titled “Felon: An America Washi Tale” – as a “re-imagining [of] paper. A solo performance that begins with the pages of a book slipped into a cell… I weave together traditional theatre, poetry, fine art and Japanese paper making aesthetic principles a meditation on my own experiences of incarceration and my legal work to free friends who are still in prison.
The set, he explains, was designed from “prison paper” which in turn was constructed “from the clothes of men I first met in prison, each of whom was still in prison during the early stages of this project”.
Donovan, the director of the Smith Poetry Center, said online access to the April 19 performance will be available for people still wary of attending public indoor events. But, he added, “hopefully we will have a good [live] involvement for this. [Betts] has a really powerful story to tell.
In a short video about Betts that was filmed last year when he won a MacArthur Fellowship — the five-year, $625,000 “genius grant” — Betts says he named his latest collection of poetry “ Felon” in part to reflect on how his own life has continued to be affected by his teenage crime. In the past, he says, he’s lost scholarship opportunities, been denied apartment rentals and his friendships have soured “because people recognized me as a criminal.”
“I think what needs to change is how this society, the community, we imagine that we could change, that we could transform ourselves,” he says. “I’m not trying to run away from the crime I committed. But I’m trying to say that I hope people can imagine that I’m more than this moment.