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Freedom Reads donates thousands of books to Virginia prisons

Reginald Dwayne Betts was arrested when he was 16 – convicted of car-jacking and sentenced to nine years in prison. That’s when he discovered books.

"I was looking for possibility. I was looking for a way to be more than a thief, than a criminal or a felon," he explains. "I was looking to be more than the violence that I was when I picked up that pistol."

Sent to a maximum-security prison in Virginia at the age of 16, Dwayne Betts says reading saved his life.
Freedom Reads
Sent to a maximum-security prison in Virginia at the age of 16, Dwayne Betts says reading saved his life.

He would go on to graduate from Yale Law School, to publish six books or poetry and prose on prison reform, and to establish a non-profit called Freedom Reads.

"Freedom Reads is an opportunity to fill prisons with libraries and to put those libraries on the cell blocks, so that people can wake up to the beauty of a book," he says.

Already they’ve opened 56 libraries – each offering 500 titles – at the Buckingham, Dilwyn, St. Bride’s and Indian Creek Correctional Centers, placing books in cases made by former prison inmates.

"Our bookcases are handmade out of walnut, out of maple, out of cherry. They’re crafted by men and women who have served time in prison."

Each is curved in contrast to the straight lines and bars of prisons and to evoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s observation that the arc of the universe bends toward justice.

"We also build and open a library for the staff as well," Betts adds. "If you work in a prison, people will tell you sometimes it feels like you’re doing a prison sentence eight hours at a time."

And his group also brings poets, artists and performers into prisons where they can spark a love of reading.

"We work with organizations that take a book like Black Boy by Richard Wright, and they transform it into a solo show – so that 300-page book becomes a 45-minute solo piece, and then we give a book to everybody."

And what titles do the libraries have to offer?

"Our library is so expansive that nine times out of ten there’s a book that you love that we have in the library. Why? Because we chose the library by talking to people like you.
So you’ll find Ann Patchett, you’ll find James Baldwin, you’ll find Faulkner, you’ll find Morrison, you’ll find Walter Mosely. You’ll find detective novels like the Maltese Falcon. You’ll find the poets. You’ll find Rita Dove, Walt Whitman – our library is replete with all of the books that matter most."

Freedom Reads is funded by grants and donations – some from prisoners like the woman who wrote – God Bless You – and enclosed a $35 check.

"And I know what that $35 check means, because I know when I was in prison I worked for 23 cents and hour, for 34 cents and hour, and then my highest salary was 54 cents an hour," Betts says. "I know that check represents an entire month of work for this woman, and I value that check just as much as I value the $5 million that we got from the Mellon Foundation."

The organization already employs 16 people and is planning to hire more inmates as they leave prison – to help them transition to a new life.

Betts admits it’s painful to go back to correctional centers, but he’s determined to keep doing so – to show that the people being held there are human beings who can become productive members of society.

"We want to place a Freedom Library in every cell block in every prison in Virginia. What we’re doing by expanding in Virginia is we really want to make the argument not just that our lives matter but that we can do something for the world that transforms it."

Dwayne Betts is founder of Freedom Reads and the author of Felon: Poems, A Question of Freedom, Bastards of the Reagan Era, Shaheed Reads His Own Palm, Redaction and the Circumference of a Prison.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief