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Capacious Cases for Freedom: A Conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts

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Reginald Dwayne Betts is an outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform and the rights of the incarcerated; his work is informed by his own experience as an ex-convict and formerly incarcerated individual. Betts is a poet, lawyer, and legal scholar currently pursuing a PhD in law at Yale. His most recent collection of poems, Felon, won an NAACP Image Award and was a finalist for the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Betts has been named a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow, a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and most recently, a 2021 MacArthur Fellow.

This week, Betts spoke with The Herald about his recent accolades, new effort to bring books to prisons nationwide, projects of criminal justice reform and abolition, and much more.

Earlier this year, you founded Freedom Reads, a nonprofit dedicated to supplying incarcerated people with books and literary resources. What was the impetus behind this project and what are you hoping it will accomplish?

I think that if you create mechanisms for the public to become more deeply aware of people on the inside, and create more opportunities for people on the inside to really access literature, writers, and journalists, you do a little bit to change what that space on the inside looks and feels like. We make moves towards decarceration and reform, but I also think we should make some moves on a very individual level around what people decide to do for others, what they know, and what they don’t know.

One of the things that happened with me when I started working on this project—and really when I started spending more time talking to people I know who are incarcerated—is that I felt like my work had to somehow expand to include different questions of what it meant to be free. I think that will happen for other people. Even for me, this project isn’t just about people who are incarcerated; I still believe a lot of correctional officers are far closer, in terms of what they’ve experienced, to my experience than the people that I’ve gone to school with, the people that advocate for reform. I just feel like that’s something people don’t consider. You don’t go inside prisons, but if you went inside a prison, it might complicate the narrative just a bit. It doesn’t change the fact that we should have fewer people in prison, but what I think it does is make you have a more sophisticated analysis about how to go about this ultimate goal and name the enemy.

A little over a week ago, it was announced that you were among the 25 individuals to be awarded a 2021 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant. What has that experience been like for you? 

You can’t expect or plan for something like that, and yet at the same time what you realize is that the freedom you need to create, to experiment, to fail, is so tied to money. My first job out of prison is the only job, outside of this one, that paid me health insurance.

And so all the work I did between day one and when I was given the grant was done because I was taking a lot of risks that maybe wouldn’t have been the safest bet for anybody else. I was teaching at schools when they weren’t paying me barely anything or giving me insurance. I was basically barnstorming around the country reading poems. I was developing projects to create access for people in prison to help me get a sense of what this project might be. I was running book clubs. That’s what this project is ultimately about.

And so that’s what I think of: how oftentimes people don’t create because of the struggles they go through, which are themselves required so that they can really commit to being inventive.

So the feeling of being awarded a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant was very much tied to the grant itself, the security and the freedom that gives you in your creative and professional pursuits.

Yeah! But also, I took a kind of freedom because I wasn’t given access to the “safer bet,” the tenure-track teaching job I was [denied] because of my criminal record—and not just because of my criminal record, but I would be naive if I pretended like that wasn’t a part of it. Those kinds of people saying no set it up for me to be, in some ways, reckless and courageous, just in terms of really pursuing my art and thinking about the way my art could be intertwined with my life.

In 2016, you received a JD from Yale Law School, where you’re now a candidate for a PhD in Law. During this time, you’ve been a resident fellow in Davenport College, and it was recently announced that Freedom Reads would be moving into the Davenport College offices. Yale has, in many ways, become an institutional home for a lot of your work. Why? Do you feel that you’ve been able to explore your work creatively and academically here?

Yeah, but I think a lot of this is about how proximity works. I’ve been proximate to Yale since law school, and I have children, and the institution has become a place where I’ve been able to do some things that I think are pretty radical. There’s just enough space here, and enough people excelling in very traditional ways, that I had room to do my work in some very non-traditional ways.

I think Yale did give me freedom to exist in some interesting ways. Even as a student, I was able to publish what many would consider to be non-traditional academic pieces that were really rooted in narrative and storytelling.

But it’s also weird, because Yale has always been my institutional home, but at the same time, being a part of it hasn’t demanded that I abandon some of my other homes. I haven’t abandoned my other interests. I haven’t abandoned the other things I want to do.

Last year, the idea of prison abolition broke into mainstream discourse, being discussed on the pages of the New York Times and many other major publications. A lot of folks have situated your work, as someone who was formerly incarcerated, in that literature and broader project. But how do you understand the goals of your work, on both the individual level and broader political scale?

That’s an interesting question because, on the individual level, it’s me being somebody who was locked up. And on the individual level, it’s me being a scholar and a poet, a “lawyer-poet.” Also on the individual level, it’s me having people who I care for that are in prison.

That individual bit is really complicated, because what I have to reckon with on the individual level is guilt, and violence, and making a case for freedom that is capacious enough to contemplate all of these really hard questions that we have to deal with. I think that a lot of times our cases for freedom are kinda narrow. The New York Times maybe isn’t the space for the most sophisticated conversation about any of these things.

When it comes to somebody like Ruthie [Wilson] Gilmore, I think that we are in alignment, and I think that we fight to get people out of prison because prisons are really dangerous deathtraps. I think that [abolition] demands a more radical viewpoint of what’s possible when you say that you want people out of prison and you’re willing to talk about the violence that got them there. I think that what I don’t always hear in the public conversations about abolition is that reckoning with the violence that got them there in a really robust way. Part of that is because the New York Times and CNN and MSNBC and Harpers—these pages aren’t actually for that complex and deep reckoning with violence, because you just can’t do it in that 800-word op-ed. I don’t even know if you could do it in 5,000 words.

But on the individual level, it happens because I’m representing somebody on parole. They write their first letter to the parole board, and I’m like “Yo, I don’t know what this letter means, bruh. You’re not contesting your guilt, but the only demand you’ve got right now is to make the parole board see who you are and how you got to where you are today from where you started.”

I think that’s the challenge of it. It’s hard to take that individual conversation that has to happen when I’m doing something as basic or fundamental as representing somebody on parole and translate that into a broader conversation about abolition.

Do you think that conversations about abolition—to confront the full weight of the issue of crime, of violence, of punishment—need to start at the individual?

Abolition is just a word, you know what I mean? This ain’t gonna come out right, but what I think is—I did eight-and-a-half years in prison, and I have friends that have done twenty, and the conversation that I had with myself about freedom demands that I use the skills I have to help people get out of prison. In a very concrete and specific way, my skills are as a writer and a lawyer.

I don’t need to be anything else in the world. I don’t need to be an abolitionist to wake up in the morning and feel good, and I don’t need to dismiss people who are abolitionists, and I don’t need to get into that argument. I need to remember that two hours ago, I was talking to somebody that I met when I was sixteen, who was also sixteen and has been in prison since April 1997. I don’t need to insert myself in this conversation about abolition to make that thing matter, that I’m trying to help him get out.

I don’t like the way it’s pitched, because I felt invisible in prison. And so for me, I’m trying to be more patient, and more calm, and more understanding about all of this stuff and recognize that people like Ruthie Gilmore were doing this work while I was locked up, since before I got locked up. I’ve learned that. I know that. I’m probably just selfish. My abolition has a bunch of names attached to it, and attaching those names and those stories allows me to think about how complicated it all is.

Would you say that the project of Freedom Reads is trying to address the invisibility that you felt while incarcerated, that feeling of isolation and loneliness?

(Laughs) Some random dude is talking to me from his pickup truck, and it’s funny because the song this cat was playing was arguably an abolitionist rap song. The reason I pointed that out is because the thing that made me notice him is that he was nodding his head to this music, and it made me think, “What the hell is he listening to?” And I rolled my window down just to hear it, and it sounded like something that had Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine as influences. I just pulled a scrap of a line, and you know when you can hear that sort of aggressive, politically-charged lyric? Even if you don’t know what it says you know what it is? That was what Chuck D did and what Rage Against the Machine did and even what early Ice Cube was doing, even with the misogyny and all that. Some of the stuff I grew up on. That’s what it means to be seen.

I do think that’s what it means for the abolition conversation to be percolating the way it has. It allows a glimmer of all the work that has been done to be seen. The work that has been done under that banner of abolition is frequently more complex or nitty-gritty than what people with tight-frame abolition have. Robust in the best sense of the word.

So when I think about Freedom Reads, I’m trying to create that same, lower-frequency Ralph Ellison shit, you know what I mean? Yeah, I know, reading Paradise Lost is not going to change the world. But I just drove past a professor of mine from law school— her name’s Issa Kohler-Hausmann, and she’s some random woman on the street waiting for the bus, about to go somewhere, and you’d see her and have no idea who she is. I know she’s doing hours and hours and hours of pro bono trying to get some people out of prison. That’s what it is. The project is that kind of thing. You hope that the work can make people visible in ways that’s not gonna make you visible.

And I’m lucky—Freedom Reads and my work as a writer have made me visible. But that freedom work hasn’t made me visible. People don’t know that I’ve gotten friends out of prison. I talk about it now more than I had before because people like to say stuff like, “You’re building libraries in prison, how come you aren’t getting people out of prison?” And I’m like, hold up. But that work that I’ve been doing isn’t what people know me for. So Freedom Reads is not meant to make me be seen but make others be seen, and in doing that, more freedom opportunities might become invented.

Lastly, is there anything—a book, an article, a podcast, anything—that has spoken to you recently and that you’d like to lift up?

Invisible Child by Andrea Elliot—she just had a piece out in the New York Times Magazine, it was the cover story last week. What I thought was interesting about the book is, we talk about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but this story is about this young kid who grows up in deep, entrenched poverty. And it’s like, what do you do? Elliot follows her for seven years. I think it’s hard for people that haven’t dealt with that to imagine how unbearably impossible-feeling it all seems. I think that story animates it. It should force us to raise different questions about rehabilitation, reform, access to opportunity, and how we deal with the personal failures that can lead people to get entrapped in the criminal justice system.

Freedom Reads is currently raising funds to support a monthly book club for incarcerated high school students, which you can donate to here.

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