Words have the ability to bring sunshine to the darkest of nights.
What if prison housing units were libraries?
We bring beautifully handcrafted 500-book libraries into prison, and by doing so, bring hope and possibility to our people there. Poet, lawyer, and founding CEO, Reginald Dwayne Betts, knows first hand about the dispiriting forces of a cell. In 1996, at 16-years old, he pled guilty to carjacking a man and was sentenced to 9 years in prison. Freedom Reads is his attempt to make sure others have access to the books that saved his life. Founded in 2020 with a $5.25 million grant from the
Mellon Foundation, Freedom Reads is the only organization in the country with a mission to provide libraries to prisons thereby supporting the efforts of people in prison to imagine new possibilities for their lives. Through our three core initiatives — Freedom Library, Ambassadors, and Stories — Freedom Reads reminds us of the dignity of all people whether serving time, or not, and that our freedom begins with a book.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer, and the founder and CEO of Freedom Reads. He is also a 2021 MacArthur Fellow. But on some fundamental level, what feels more significant than the awards that he has won or the books that he has published is that he’s helped get three men out of prison who he served time with and is working to get others out. His books include his latest poetry collection, Felon; the memoir, A Question of Freedom; and two previous collections of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm and Bastards of the Reagan Era. In 2019, Betts won the National Magazine Award in the Essays and Criticism category for Getting Out, his New York Times Magazine essay that chronicles his journey from prison to becoming a licensed attorney. Dwayne holds a J.D. from Yale Law School.
As Director of Production, Tyler Sperrazza oversees the fabrication and deployment of Freedom Library bookshelves across the country while directly supervising the Hamden, CT manufacturing shop. Additionally, he serves as the touring production manager and technical director for Felon: An American Washi Tale and advises the team on all live event production needs. Tyler earned a Ph.D. in History and African American and Diaspora Studies from Penn State University and is a professional theatrical lighting designer with over 75 show credits across North America. Tyler’s writings appear in The Washington Post and various academic journals.
Claire Elliman is the Program Manager for Freedom Reads. She previously worked at Legal Aid Society’s Parole Revocation Defense Unit, assisting in the defense of New Yorkers remanded on Rikers Island for alleged parole violations and facilitating in the rollout of Less is More, New York’s sweeping parole reform law. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature from Yale University and an MPhil in Education from the University of Cambridge, where she wrote on the future of higher education in UK prisons.
Steven Parkhurst, Freedom Reads Fellow, was a juvenile offender who served 30 years in prison. While inside, he earned a GED and completed an AA, a BA, and several courses toward his MBA. Simultaneously he served as the Inmate College Advisor for over a decade. Steven’s parole reform litigation earned him his second chance at freedom and gave dozens of his peers a second chance too. His socially conscious works of art can be found in nonprofits nationwide and he is an active service dog trainer matching dogs to people with disabilities.
Dempsey lives in London where he frequents the city’s bookshops and libraries and contributes to Freedom Reads with the view that literature is basic equipment for life.
Tracey L. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor and a Founding Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. Before joining the faculty at Yale, she was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School from 1995 to 2007, serving as Max Pam Professor and Director of the Center for Studies in Criminal Justice. She was the first African American woman to be granted tenure at both law schools.
Professor Meares is a nationally recognized expert on policing in urban communities. Her research focuses on understanding how members of the public think about their relationship(s) with legal authorities such as police, prosecutors and judges. She teaches courses on criminal procedure, criminal law, and policy and she has worked extensively with the federal government having served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Law and Justice, a National Research Council standing committee and the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs Science Advisory Board.
In April 2019, Professor Meares was elected as a member to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In December 2014, President Obama named her as a member of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She has a B.S. in general engineering from the University of Illinois and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.
Helena Huang manages the Art for Justice Fund (A4J). A4J was established by art philanthropist Agnes Gund in 2017—in partnership with the Ford Foundation—as a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. This $100 million fund is dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States through criminal justice grants supporting high-impact campaigns in the justice and arts sectors. From the Ford Foundation, Helena directs A4J’s grant-making focusing on: bail and sentencing reform, reducing legal barriers for people coming home from prison, and narrative change through the arts.
Previously Helena has held leadership positions in both the foundation and advocacy world. She was a program manager for two national philanthropies for nearly 10 years: the Open Society Foundation (1997-2002) and the JEHT Foundation (2002-06). Later, she co-founded and directed Oregon Voice, a state-based civic engagement organization that helped pass the first automatic voter registration law in a US state. Before returning to philanthropy in 2017, Helena spent a decade building resources for state-based voting rights and civic engagement organizations.
Born in New York City, Helena comes from a family of artists and human rights activists. She holds an MPA from the Columbia School of International Affairs and a BA from Cornell University.
Deborah Leff has held leadership positions in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. She’s served as US Pardon Attorney, President of the Public Welfare Foundation, Senior Advisor to the Equal Justice Initiative, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and CEO of Feeding America. Earlier, she was Senior Producer at ABC News Nightline and World News Tonight, overseeing coverage that won the Emmy and the DuPont awards.
Deborah has chaired the Board of Directors of StoryCorps, and has also served on the Boards of CARE, Sixth Amendment Center, the NACDL Foundation for Criminal Justice, and the Children’s Defense Fund. She also chaired the Midwest Rhodes Scholars Selection Committee.
She received her A.B. cum laude from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, where she was named a University Scholar. She earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School.
With 30 years of professional experience as an attorney, senior Hill staffer, and Assistant Attorney General Robert has a nuanced understanding of the legal subtleties and the political realities of the issues he handles. Robert brings an ardent bipartisan approach to his work, cultivated during a highly respected legislative career that began on Representative Barney Frank’s staff and concluded with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde’s endorsement of his Justice Department appointment. Robert served as counsel to Congressman Barney Frank, Democratic counsel for two Subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee.
In 1999, Robert’s reputation and effectiveness caught the attention of the White House, earning him an appointment as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and, subsequently, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legislative Affairs. After a unanimous confirmation vote by a Republican-controlled Senate, Robert was charged with overseeing Attorney General Janet Reno’s legislative initiatives and handling extensive Congressional oversight of the department. Since 2002 he has run The Raben Group and currently serves on the Boards of The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the Unidos Action Fund, and former President Obama’s My Brothers’ Keeper Alliance. Past Board Service includes the American Constitution Society and the Alliance for Justice.