Reginald Dwayne Betts: Prisoner to Poet

Image credit: Screen grab from “Dwayne Betts: Poetry Saved My Life”

Award-winning poet and law school graduate honors his Solo Mom

At the age of 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts faced a bleak future. He had been sentenced to nine years in prison for participating in a carjacking in a Washington, DC, suburb and was sent to what he would later describe as “a treacherous and a wild place,” even though he was a child wearing braces. But today he is an acclaimed writer, husband with two children, and a graduate from Yale Law School. And his Solo Mom helped him throughout his compelling journey from prison to the author of books such as Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015), which made Library Journal’s “Best Books 2015: Poetry” list and is shortlisted for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award.

Born in 1980, Betts enjoyed a life of opportunity growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, thanks to his Solo Mom, who worked for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. He attended magnet schools, took honors classes, and was treasurer of his junior class. As he would recount in a December 2015 NPR interview, his mother gave him stability and taught him a love of books. Little did he know that his passion for reading would loom large in an unexpected way.

But Betts chose his friends poorly and began to drift away from a life that held such promise. With one of his friends, in 1996, he carjacked an automobile and went on a joyride, holding its occupant at gunpoint in the process—18 hours later, he was arrested. Within a year’s time, he would be sentenced as an adult. The judge who sentenced him to nine years said at the time, “I don’t have any illusions that the penitentiary is going to help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to.”

Up to that point, Betts had always assumed prison was something that happened to the other guy. He thought he was special and headed to a life of higher education. In prison, he realized he had become the other guy. As he told NPR, “I was 5 feet, 5 inches and 120 pounds. I went to prison with grown men, and I went into what people readily acknowledge as a treacherous and a wild place.”

For Betts, the life ahead would be made even more difficult to accept because he was a young man with no criminal record facing hard time. But as Betts would point out later, he was living in a climate of heightened fears of the “superpredator,” a coined term describing young men who commit crimes without remorse. He picked the wrong time in recent American history to commit a carjacking.

And prison would, indeed, be a harsh place. The potential for violence was a daily reality, and he needed to learn, quickly, how to avoid making bad decisions that could have added years to his sentence. Even so, more than once he would face stints in solitary confinement as a result of run-ins with correctional officers. But in prison he also began to learn and to grow. He met men who mentored and nurtured him—some of them, he would later say, were brilliant thinkers who would never see a day outside prison. From those men, he learned humility. “You can’t survive prison and imagine you did it all by yourself,” he told NPR.

He also rediscovered books. According to Betts, “When I got locked up, books became magic.” In prison, books were a way of experiencing the world outside and a way of discovering humanity through the words and journeys of people who were flawed like himself. He read voraciously. He even found books in solitary confinement, where they were supposedly banned. One day when he was in solitary, someone (he never learned who) slipped a copy of The Black Poets by Dudley Randall under his cell door.

“That’s the book that changed my life,” he would later say. “It introduced me to Etheridge Knight, to Rob Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, and so many countless black writers and black poets that really shaped who it is that I wanted to be in the world.”

The book would transform him into becoming a writer. He began writing poems and essays as a way of maintaining his humanity in prison—and kept on writing when he was released from prison on March 4, 2005. And his Solo Mom was there to help him get reestablished in society.

His first job out of prison was to help his Solo Mom move into a new place—his new home, too. Unbeknown to Betts, while he was in prison, his mom had been looking for a place to live in a neighborhood out of reach of the bad influences from his past life. She also provided him with a car, which would be necessary to find a job.

“My mom didn’t want me to be in the same community I was in or around the people I was around when I committed the crime,” he said. “I had a foundation that a lot of people in prison don’t have. I had a stable home. I had a supportive mother. I had a car. My mom has been my rock since I came home. My mom made sure I was OK.”

He found a job working at a Karibu Books, a DC-area store that was known for catering to the needs of black readers before it closed in 2008. Meanwhile, he wrote a rich vein of poetry as well as his memoirs. At Karibu Books, a female friend asked him, “What are you doing for young black boys? What are you doing to increase literacy in the black community?” The challenge moved Betts. So he founded a book club, YoungMenRead. The popularity of the club earned him a Washington Post profile that discussed his journey and cited his writing. According to the New Yorker, the publicity caught the attention of literary agents and a book deal in 2007. One thing led to another, and he also found himself with an opportunity to attend Yale Law School, where he is now a student.

He would publish a memoir in 2010 and his breakthrough book of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era, in 2015. He is known for writing powerful words that touch upon topical issues, including “For the City that Nearly Broke Me,” which Betts says he wrote to discuss the death of black youth at the hands of the police before the issue became a national news story. Bastards of the Reagan Era has been described by the New York Times as “Fierce, lyrical and unsparing” and has given Betts a more prominent platform to share his journey.

In addition to continuing to write, he has also committed his life to helping others, especially those who have been incarcerated.

“We need a system that imagines what happens upon release—that imagines us being successful outside of prison,” he said. “Most people are not spending decades and decades in prison. They go in at 16 and come out at 25. How do we fashion a system that acknowledges that they will return? And that they should be able to return to the possibility of being a contributing member of society?”

He plans to do his part by fighting employment discrimination against ex-convicts and helping people who are out on parole, and he counts on his Solo Mom more than ever—but in a different way. He explained, “I took my son to a museum in Chicago and we were watching a short clip about woolly mammoths, and something I saw really struck me as profound: If you see a site of trauma, a site of huge tragedy, a mudslide or something . . . you’ll see the children in the middle of a circle and all of the mothers around those children.”

He said his mom is part of a “circle of elephants” around his two children—a circle that includes himself and his wife, friends, and professors. Through the circle of elephants, Reginald Dwayne Betts is both providing for and protecting his children as best he can.

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

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