By Benjamin Frandsen
CALIFORNIA—At the age of 16, Dwayne Betts was sentenced to nine years in an adult state penitentiary. While in solitary confinement, this bright young man whose brief foray into crime had brought him to prison, found a life raft amidst the sea of broken dreams and despair.
“I survived solitary,” Betts said, “and rediscovered a sense of freedom the system had tried to beat out of me, because of a book. I realized that a poem can give somebody a whole world of hope. And after reading that book, I dedicated myself to helping other prisoners, and people outside of prison, discover the freedom blueprint that poetry, literature, and other arts can provide.”
Betts writes about his experiences and his journey in A Question of Freedom—A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison: “It’s the story of the thirty minutes it took me to shatter my life into the memory of one cell after another, and the cost of walking away from a bad idea a minute too late.”
For Betts, books offered him entrance into a transformational world that prison seems designed to stamp out—the world of ideas. “Reading,” he writes, “was what I needed to beat back all that noise and silence, those horrible silences. . . . An ink pen was the only way to carve a voice out of the air and have others hear it.” He began to elevate his mind and question his choices, both old and new, and soon decided how he wanted to help change the world of prisons.
Seeking to offer other incarcerated men and women the same lifeline he himself had grabbed onto, Betts became the Founder and Executive Director of Freedom Reads, a nonprofit organization that is radically transforming the access to literature in prisons. Betts installs “Freedom Libraries” in prisons across this country. Each small library holds 500 books that have been carefully curated by Betts, books that he believes are most likely to inform and change incarcerated citizens’ minds for the better.
Recently, Freedom Reads donated 17 of these mini libraries to Valley State Prison and Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, installing one in each of the prison’s housing units.
These mini portable libraries are constructed with handcrafted shelves made of maple, cherry, or walnut. Visually, the sleek design uses connected curves to act as counterpoints to the angular surroundings, to break the oppressive monotony of the institutional straight lines seen in brick walls, steel bars, and razor wire. Philosophically, the curves are also meant to echo the Words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Freedom Reads is a unique nonprofit employing the transcendent power of literature to imagine new futures for the lives of the men and women who are touched by it. Over 200 people, including teachers, poets, philosophers, novelists, and teachers, were tapped for their advice on which books to select. Titles ranging from authors from Homer and Frederick Douglass to Jonathon Franzen cannot help but be a collective comment about how long a freedom project can take.
Freedom Reads is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Betts, its founder, won the National Magazine Award for his NY Times Magazine essay tracing his sojourn from prison to becoming a licensed attorney. He won a Radcliffe Fellowship from Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Emerson Fellow at New America, and, not long ago, he became a Civil Society Fellow at Aspen. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School. His goal is to have one of his Freedom Libraries accessible by every person locked up behind prison walls.
If the change instilled in the incarcerated citizens who are blessed with access to these Freedom Libraries is even a fraction as powerful as the change in Dwayne Betts, the impact of this project could be seismic, far-reaching, and an incredible testament to how the light of knowledge can illuminate even the darkest of places.
(For more information on how you can donate to this worthy cause, please check out www.freedomreads.org)