Reginald Dwayne Betts is on a quest to build 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the U.S.

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Portrait of Reginald Dwayne Betts. (Courtesy Mamadi Doumbouya)
Portrait of Reginald Dwayne Betts. (Courtesy Mamadi Doumbouya)

He's a poet, lawyer and MacArthur Genius Award-winner who served eight years in prison. Now, Reginald Dwayne Betts is building prison libraries.

The first ever is here in Massachusetts, at the MCI-Norfolk Correctional Facility. In fact, the library's inside what some believe to be Malcom X's old cell.

Reginald Dwayne Betts joins us to talk about his vision, and how his experiences have shaped where he is today.

Interview Highlights

On why he chose MCI-Norfolk to build his first prison library in the state of Massachusetts, and the prison's connection to Malcolm X:

"I should start with this: MCI-Norfolk was built years and years ago in the 1940s as more of a rehabilitative institution. When you go there and when you walk onto the yard, the yard feels very much like a college campus. And when Malcolm X talked about it, he talked about it feeling quite different from the other facilities that he had been in ... And I should say that we say this may have been Malcolm X's prison cell, but it really is more of a metaphorical point.

"Once you've been inside of a prison cell, you say that you haven't been inside of a prison and inside of a cell, once you've been inside of a cell, they feel eerily familiar. And I'm making a point of emphasis: it's not the particular location at a cell, but the life of the person who was once in that prison in one of those spaces of confinement and how Malcolm X transformed his life through literature.

"And what happens is, when you go into a prison cell, it is dank. It is dark. It feels so utterly unforgiving. And when you throw wood into that cell, when you remove the bunks and you put something that was beautifully handcrafted and you put these specially-selected 500 books that run the gamut [in] genre: from mystery to science fiction to philosophy to poetry to drama. When you put those books on those shelves, it transforms the space and it becomes calming and it becomes a reminder of what you want to leave prison and go to, and why it matters to leave that place."

On the process of selecting which books went into the library:

"I guess I need to take responsibility for that. ... I didn't pick it by myself. It's books that I love. It's books that I haven't read like 'Science Preceding the End of the World,' by Yuri Herrera. But you also have stuff that's, like, fantastic. Books that gob-smacked me. Andre Agassi's memoir 'Open' is something that I didn't expect to be as good as it actually is. You have classics like 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' you have John Agawam and you have James Baldwin. But you also have Faulkner. You have 'The Iliad.' I mean, you really do have the gamut. You have about 15 or 16% of the books that are in Spanish... It is a world-opening library, we like to believe. And we curated it with the help of a lot of other people, with the help of a lot of conversations, but ultimately I will claim the responsibility, and the blame for what's missing."

On his hope for what these micro-libraries will give to people who are incarcerated:

"I went to prison when I was 16. And in eight-and-a-half years, the only people who told me that I could be a writer, a poet, you know, a teacher were mostly people I was incarcerated with. And some COs (correctional officers) and some staff ... it was really still few and far between where I got those messages from.

"Hopefully these Freedom Libraries create a center of possibility in a way in which we can name people like me, people like Susan Burton, people like Mitchell Jackson, people like Randall Horton, people like Natalie Diaz, people like John Agawam. And I mean, we have a whole country of writers who have been touched by incarceration because...this is not a Black problem. This is not a white problem. It's not a Latino problem. This is a fundamentally American problem, and I believe that the Freedom Library gives us a gateway for people on the inside and the outside to contemplate it with a new lens."

On how he is funding his project and plans for 1,000 micro-libraries in prisons across the U.S.:

"We are a bit of a long way off. Each Freedom Library costs roughly $25,000. That covers the purchase of the wood, that covers the purchase of the books, that covers the purchase of the labor that produces it. So we're a bit of a ways off. But we're pushing ... And while 1,000 is the start, we have more than 6,000 institutions of incarceration in the country, and so 1,000 is the start, 1,000 is how we prove that we care ... right now, we raised more than $5 million and we've shown it is possible and we're doing it. And ultimately, we'll need to raise another $25 million to bridge the gap between building one and building 1,000."

This article was originally published on December 01, 2021.

This segment aired on December 1, 2021.

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