By: Joseph Oliveri
Reginald Dwayne Betts knew he was going to be a writer when he was 16 years old. It was 1996. He was a high schooler living in Fairfax County, Va., and had just celebrated his birthday.
He’d also just been sentenced to nine years in prison.
The decision to become a writer on the day of his sentencing was somewhat of an impulsive one, Betts told the audience in Pinney Hall on Thursday night. Perhaps it was not impulsive in the same way as his decision to commit a carjacking and credit card theft, but both changed his life dramatically.
“Incarceration is also learning how to be a poet,” Betts said, explaining that his revelation about writing came about when he misunderstood how long his sentence actually was. He was tried as an adult and thought he was sentenced to 14 years instead of nine.
Now, he’s a poet and plus some: a lawyer, teacher, author, legal researcher, and member of the Obama administration’s Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He’s held a Radcliffe and Soros School Fellowship at Harvard, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Yale.
“Possibility didn’t have to determine what I reached for,” Betts said.
When his lawyer clarified his sentence on that day in 1996, it afforded him some relief, but Betts called the violence of prison “a cloud of smoke you learned to breathe or choke on.”
He detailed the jail-to-college journey at length in a 2018 New York Times piece, writing: “I’d seen and heard enough to understand how prison ruins everyone: prisoners, guards, family, the ground it’s built on.” He spent time in solitary confinement. He witnessed horrific assaults.
But everything changed when an inmate slipped a copy of Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” into Betts’ cell. He meticulously transcribed its entries, feeding his nascent interest in writing. He began surreptitiously using prison typewriters for his own verse. He sold tobacco to other inmates “at exorbitant rates” to afford new books.
After his release in March 2005, he got into to community college, then the University of Maryland. He earned a bachelor’s degree, and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. His memoir “A Question of Freedom” won the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. He published his first poetry collection, “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” He got married and became a father.
By 2013, Betts had received law school offers from as he marvels, “one school for every year I’d been in prison.” He graduated from Yale Law School in 2016, and was sworn into the Connecticut Bar Association the following year.
Both Betts’ prose and verse synthesize narratives and deftly capture his shared memories, pains, fears and traumas. There’s clever and dark wit, and tragic portraits of his dialectical past and identity; the titular poem of his debut collection—Shahid is the moniker he adopted in prison—is a declaration of humanity amid the desolation of urban poverty:
“I come from beneath a cloud of white smoke, a lit pipe and the way glass heats rocks into a piece of heaven, from the weight of nothing in my palm. A bullet in an unfired snub-nosed revolver.
And every day the small muscles in my finger threaten to pull
a trigger, slight and curved like my woman’s eyelashes.”
His arresting introspection and wordplay aren’t enough to characterize the ethos of his work. His collection “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” which won the 2016 PEN Open Book Award, waxes sharply political. The title invokes the metaphorical illegitimacy of an entire generation of black Americans, sired by the sinister union of structural inequality and the warmongering lies of the Iran-Contra and crack crisis-era neoliberal empire. The poem “Night of the Living Baseheads,” reads:
“We figured: Every brother man’s life is
Like swinging the dice. Why live so close to caskets?
After that Rockefeller wealth, a few
Got crushed by Rockefeller drug laws; locked
Slam up before the money flowed like piss
In a tenement hallway.”
Betts said he had to “reimagine” himself after prison. He began noticing a pattern, having to “confess” his incarcerated past to people: first to college admissions counselors, then to his eventual wife, Terese, then at his graduation ceremony from the University of Maryland. He recalled to Thursday’s audience how the well-to-do families in the first row “lost all composure” when they learned the commencement speaker was a felon.
Betts doesn’t discount the discrimination, either. He related the difficulty he had finding a job that would hire him despite his felon status. The University of Maryland even revoked a scholarship due to his record.
But that didn’t stifle his artistic convictions or academic pursuits. Neither did, as he jokes, “being a ‘legit’ dad” while trying to get a law degree.
“You don’t let your mind dictate where you can’t go,” Betts said. The journey, he said, was about “giving myself the permission to fail.” His latest collection of poetry, “Felon,” which was released this month, revisits the incarceration with a focus on its effects on personal identity. But Betts tackles some new subject matter, too; the toll of alcoholism and domestic violence. “Essay on Re-Entry” depicts Betts’ explanation of his past to his 5-year-old son.
To Betts, progress on criminal justice reform is not unlike writing in that it’s contingent on narrative. He explained to a group of students after his address that changing how crime is framed in legal and political discourse is a larger part of the battle than we’re led to believe. Betts said tackling tropes like the “school-to-prison pipeline” means “equipping people with something beyond rhetoric.” He added that interrogating the specifics of a given criminal case isn’t an effective means of curbing unfair sentencing across the board.
“A more meaningful discussion is, should you ever get 40 years—ever—for robbery?” Betts told students. He touched on recent political controversy: should the incarcerated and felons have the right to vote?
“I think they should be able to vote. I think that it becomes more complicated because it becomes ‘where are you voting?’”
Betts cited disparities based on state-specific laws: “We don’t have enough people voting in local elections anyway, and local elections are ultimately what matters,” Betts said. “I don’t know if the inability to participate in civic life should be a part of the punishment.”
Betts wasted no words between reading published excerpts and answering questions, his measured, impactful cadence melding seamlessly with the viscera of both his verses. Thanking Dr. Michelle Brown, Dean of the Macricostas School of Arts & Sciences, he couldn’t seem to hide his love for academia, either.
“It’s nice to remember the people who made your presence possible,” Betts said.