A few minutes into his speech, the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, LAW ’16, says, “In prison, your world looks like this.”
The screen goes dark.
A spectral voice, with the mixed cadences of an experienced poet and a man thinking out loud, keeps speaking. But his Zoom box, which previously showed a Black man with a greying beard and thick-rimmed glasses, is replaced with total blackness.
After barely half a minute, a webinar administrator reminds Betts that his screen is dark. He knows—and he knows that the shock of going from seeing his face to seeing nothing at all, even as his voice continues to emanate from attendees’ computers, is distinctly uncomfortable. The point, he tells his audience before he reappears, is to create a feeling “like [that of] being in solitary confinement. You want to get free. But you can’t.”
For Betts, the experience of solitary confinement is not something to be discussed in the abstract. Now a doctoral candidate in law at Yale, at the age of sixteen he was sentenced to nine years in Virginia prisons for a carjacking. Of the eight and a half years Betts ultimately served, fourteen months were spent in solitary confinement. It was in solitary that Betts was introduced—through the anthology The Black Poets—to literature, his life’s devotion.
Now, with The Million Book Project (MBP), Betts aims to do for thousands of other inmates what that book did for him: “Bring light to people in prison.”
The MBP, conceptualized by Betts and based out of the Justice Collaboratory, a criminal justice initiative at Yale Law School, plans to “place 500-title collections inside 1,000 prisons across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.” It’s partially funded by the Mellon Foundation, and partially by private donations. As a project, it’s a product of two questions Betts asked himself recently: “Who do great books reach? And who do my books reach?” In considering those questions, he said, “I realized that those answers frequently aren’t people in prison… Thinking about what’s necessary to improve their lives and their prospects and their opportunities, I thought about The Million Book Project.”
Betts’ recent talk on the project took place on the first day of Black History Month as part of the Beinecke Library’s “Mondays at Beinecke” lecture series. During the lecture, Betts described the importance of his vision by emphasizing its tangible effect: “Books don’t keep people from going to prison. It’s the conversations you have about books that keep people from going to prison.” The MBP’s goal is to make these conversations far more accessible to people in prison as a means of keeping hope and possibility alive. Symbolizing these values, the MBP’s logo is a book with wings that will be stamped in every book sent to prisons as a “testament to possibility.”
“We had this joke,” Betts told the Herald, “If you was a prison guard, ‘You’re doing life too! You’re just doing it eight hours at a time.’” To that end, Betts plans to have the MBP’s books placed in locations accessible to both guards and prisoners. The choice is a subtle challenge to the very structure of prisons. “If you imagine filling a prison up with books, and with conversations around books,” Betts said, “what you imagine is pushing at the system from the inside, so it leaves very little room for the necessity of cells. And that’s wildly ambitious, but that’s one of the undertones that we’re dealing with.”
Betts declined to reveal exactly which 500 books he and his team will be sending across the country in “Freedom Libraries” to begin their push against the system. His one teaser: the list will be released on March 4, a date whose importance he laughingly declined to disclose.
Betts was more inclined to go into detail on the selection process, noting during his presentation that a “bookshelf is an idiosyncratic thing, and we wanted ours to be just as idiosyncratic.” To reach this goal, the MBP bookshelf began with Betts’ personal list, then went through several rounds of expansion and condensation. It grew further from discussions with partners, including program coordinator Molly Aunger and project manager Tess Wheelwright, SM ’05. From there, the MBP team circulated a survey of great books to a few hundred collaborators—who returned, according to Betts, “twelve or thirteen thousand” recommendations.
As part of the selection process, the MBP also facilitated small “book circles”: part Zoom conversation, part happy hour, these events put four people working with the MBP together to select books for the collection. The project’s collaborators are diverse. The names Betts dropped during his Beinecke talk included everyone from prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore to former head of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Leann Bertsch to writer James McBride and historian Jill Lepore.
“On some level, I think people really like books,” Betts said about his collaborators’ decisions to join the project. But he felt that their interest went beyond this: “I think they all recognize that in terms of working around prisons issues… it feels good to do something for somebody’s personal edification and can also be a signal for how we really, really need to transform this system.”
In Betts’ opinion, as important as the list of titles is the context in which they’ll be presented. He enthusiastically described the MBP’s work with designers to create a bookshelf that will aesthetically enliven its surroundings as much as it will hold books. The project also makes use of literary ambassadors, celebrated writers who will give readings in prisons, as a means to help books and the literary world “see and be seen” by the incarcerated.
The accessibility of these writers and literary ambassadors is an important part of the project for Betts, who sees an erosion of contact as a constant facet of prison life. He recalled that as an inmate, he would send a letter to everybody whose work he read with some of his poetry enclosed, telling them what he liked about their work and asking them to read his own. “I would never get a letter back,” he said. The theme of disconnect reappeared as Betts discussed the current trend towards digitization of letters in prisons, and what is lost when inmates “can’t feel the texture… [of the heavy paper] that you bought just because you wanted them to feel something that was beautiful.”
The final element of the MBP’s current form is The Freedom Takes, a podcast in which Betts talks with “some of the authors of [MBP] books about their lives as writers and as readers, and about what it means to them to be free.” Guests so far have included Jason Reynolds, Rion Amilcar Scott, and Miriam Toews—all names likely to reappear in the MBP’s final bookshelf.
Betts’ goals are ambitious. But he is realistic about the limits of what the MBP can and should do. The project is already sending books to juvenile detention centers, but is not a replacement for prison libraries. The MBP isn’t organizing book clubs or collecting precise data on how its resources are used, but the project does support existing programs of both types. And while the MBP is not overly preoccupied with censorship of books in prison—Betts says it will prepare substitutes for titles on its list—he says the project will exhaust every option to get books that matter into prisons.
For a few months of high school, I volunteered at an organization called Book’em in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Every Sunday, volunteers gathered in the dusty basement of a local community center to open letters from incarcerated Pennsylvanians asking for books. Their requests ranged from highly specific titles to general topics like science and religion. Occasionally, a certain ask would strike a chord, and a volunteer would try hard to make sure they got what they wanted (quite literally) to the letter. But Book’em faced many challenges. Prison officials are highly suspicious of allowing the outside world in—even if it’s only in the form of a few books. The restrictions—weight, size, subject matter, to say nothing of blanket bans—on inbound mail were numerous. And it worked with only a thin slice of the country’s prison population.
For all of these reasons and more, Betts readily admits that the MBP is “absurdly ambitious.” But he doesn’t see the scope of his project as a cause for concern. If anything, he might find its depressing precedents somewhat encouraging. “We have more than 6,000 institutions of incarceration in this country… We’ve spent millions of dollars on building prisons. The truth is, even when you say, ‘How many of these [Freedom Libraries] do you want to build? How much do you want to spend on this?’ It’s a drop in the bucket to what we spend anyway.”
While the Million Book Project does not accept donations of used books, it welcomes monetary donations. If you would like to donate, you can do so here.
Cover illustration by Robert Samec