Firebrand Black leader Malcolm X is arguably the most famous American to have had a personal transformation in prison. But for millions of others serving time in the world's largest correctional system, prison is not a place for correction. Instead, inmates become hardened, or broken.
By dint of his own imagination and fierce longing to be a healed and healing person, Reginald Dwayne Betts has followed in Malcolm X's footsteps. A much-honored poet and respected lawyer with a degree from Yale Law School, Betts has been trying to redefine his life away from the one teenage act that continues to reverberate through his thoughts and dreams.
At 16, the Maryland native pleaded guilty to a carjacking for which he served nearly nine years in prison. It was there that he read the poetry of Etheridge Knight, Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove, among others, drawing soul-saving inspiration.
"I know those poems just like friends," said Betts, 40. "I think about prison more now than when I was inside. I only survived because I was dumb enough not to understand what I was going through."
Betts wrestles with his cauterizing experience in "Felon," his third poetry collection. He uses lyrical words like a trapped figure trying out keys to escape a locked box bobbing toward a waterfall.
"Felon" opens with a ghazal, a form of traditional love poem, and ends with a crown of sonnets. In between, Betts explores questions about intimacy, alcohol and freedom. There are poems about violence, fatherhood and violations.
He also sends up some of the absurdities that he has observed, inside and outside the pen: "Did a stretch in prison to be released to a cell," he writes in a blues sonnet, "Returned to a freedom penned by Orwell."
"Felon" has poems pulled from Betts' own life, but the collection is not all biographical. Like a dramatist, he assumes the voice of people he has known or characters he's imagined. Sometimes, especially on poems where he takes us into a horrible experience, people mistake the writer for his assumed character.
"Somebody said, 'Reginald Dwayne Betts admits to selling crack to pregnant women,' " he said in a recent interview about the book. "Man, I never sold crack. Don't know what it looks like. Don't know what it smells like. Never touched it. And I don't think I could write a line like, 'I sold crack to pregnant women' had I actually done it. I don't know if I could grapple with the moral implications of that. And the people who I know who've done it, they don't write it down. That's almost as if they did it twice. There's something hard about revisiting those things that you've done to hurt others."
"Felon" also includes poetic innovations. Betts works as a lawyer and legal scholar. The book has several poems that make ample use of redactions — those black lines that we know well from the Mueller report and other government documents. Betts drew them himself in the book as he scribbled over legal briefs from California and Missouri, reducing verbiage to telling, haiku-like poems.
In "Alabama," the redactions reduce the legalese to: "Plaintiffs seek / fundamental rights / they suffered … It is the policy / of the City / to jail people … to hold prisoners / until extinguished."
"Redaction is a rhetoric of the law, of government," he said. "What I found impressive about these legal briefs is that they were arguing to lock people up because they owed traffic tickets. The thing is, how can you lock somebody up because they owe $1,500 in traffic tickets? Then you go from that to say, he lost his job because he was sitting in jail. This is like a pure absurdity, right?"
In law school, he learned "all these technical terms like 'jurisdiction' and 'numerosity' that they use in court that allow you to miss the essence of what the documents say — he lost his job because he was sitting in jail; he was locked up for traffic tickets. I wanted to use redaction as a revelatory tool. As a lawyer, I wanted to flex my [literary] skills and say, can I turn this legalese into song?"
Betts lives in New Haven, Conn., with his wife and two sons. He's a member of the Connecticut bar. He founded the Million Book Project at Yale Law, from which he graduated in 2016, to stock over 1,000 prison libraries with soul-sustaining literature. And he speaks all over the country, sharing his experience.
He's thinking and talking about prison now more than ever. That's partly because, even though he is worlds away from the adolescent who wound up incarcerated, the consequences still redound.
"I was talking to a guy I admire about [author] Primo Levi's 'Survival in Auschwitz,' " Betts said. "The second part of the book is when he leaves the camp but barely survives, and realizes that something has happened that makes him no longer suitable for the world."
Does that also apply to Betts?
"Prison grabs you and you're trying to figure out a way for it to let you go," he said. "As a writer, I think if I tell the right story in the right way, it will let me go."
In "Felon," Betts references Lazarus, a biblical figure who is restored to life after death. That's a metaphor for his own resurrection story — one that he signals in his writing in a small way: He has taken to putting "Esq." behind his name as a replacement for the prison number — 251534 — that used to follow.
"I needed some other placeholder, not just my state number," he said. "Sometimes you need a way to name yourself to be who you want to be in the world. I'm trying to figure out new ways to remember who I am."
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