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The latest from Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, the Freedom Reads team, and our larger community, both on the inside and the outside.

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Founder's Take: Seeing Each Other More Clearly

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

Yesterday I learned something. One of our team members, a brother who has been with us for nearly a year now, served time in prison. I never knew. I thought of him in the same way that I’ve thought of Claire in the past, or Allie now, or Gabby. I thought of Mike in the same way I’ve thought of Tyler or David or any of the dozens of people we work with, which is to say, I thought of him as one of the bedrocks of the organization. See, Mike is one of the folks that touches nearly every Freedom Library that we build, working with his hands to transform remnants of trees into hope and possibility. And yesterday, as we celebrated a significant grant given to us by the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority (CHEFA), he talked about the time he’d served in prison and what it meant to come home to this work.

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Celebrating Freedom: My Journey with Freedom Reads

By David Perez Jr, Program Coordinator at Freedom Reads
David (lower left), Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts (lower right), and Freedom Reads Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst (lower middle) with men at Arizona State Prison Complex - Yuma during the Inside Literary Prize tour.
David (lower left), Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts (lower right), and Freedom Reads Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst (lower middle) with men at Arizona State Prison Complex - Yuma during the Inside Literary Prize tour.

I stumbled upon Freedom Reads Founder Reginald Dwayne Betts’ book, FELON, in a random room at Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut. I talked about the book with my now colleague, Steven Parkhurst, while we were both on the inside. Steve talked about potentially speaking with Dwayne soon and I talked about what amazing work Freedom Reads was doing. We both talked about how thrilling it would be to work for an organization like that.

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Inside Literary Prize: Updates from Leg One of the Tour

By Gabby Colangelo, Program Coordinator for Freedom Reads
Judges inside at La Vista Correctional Center in Colorado vote on the four shortlisted books for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize.
Judges inside at La Vista Correctional Center in Colorado vote on the four shortlisted books for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize.

In a few days, the Freedom Reads team will set off for North Dakota and Minnesota, for the second leg of the Inside Literary Prize tour. We’ll meet dozens of Inside Literary Prize judges, lead live discussions about the books, and host literary readings with Roger Bonair-Agard, Douglas Kearney, and Randall Horton.

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Founder's Take: The Most Absolutely Free Thing I've Ever Done

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts performs his one-man show, FELON: An American Washi Tale, at Buckingham Correctional Center on March 4, 2024.
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts performs his one-man show, FELON: An American Washi Tale, at Buckingham Correctional Center on March 4, 2024.

This is what they cannot tell you to expect: that you’ll return. No, that’s not true. They predict that you will return in handcuffs. Never as it happened on March 4, 2024. That morning, I returned as a poet who would perform for them as if the men inside were a Broadway audience; I returned as someone who’d served time with them, as a lawyer who’d been trained in the cells they knew too well.

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Founder’s Take: Our Reminder and Historical Record

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.

There are more than 800 pillars, large corten steel monuments that seemingly hang from the sky at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The monuments are memorials. The Oxford English Dictionary says the etymology, a fancy way to say word origin, of memorial is the Latin memoriālis, an adjective for records or the French memorial, an adjective for commemorative, remembered. In this country, there are more things that we would rather forget than remember. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is about remembering. And so, each pillar has the name of a county in America where a lynching has occurred, each has the names, when known, of people who were lynched in this country. 

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Freedom Reads Brings Literary Performances to Rhode Island Prisons

By Steven Parkhurst, Program Coordinator at Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst outside of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections John J. Moran facility.
Freedom Reads Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst outside of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections John J. Moran facility.

Freedom Reads put on literary events at Rhode Island prisons for the first time last week. Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts performed his one-man show, FELON: An American Washi Tale. Following the show, Dwayne and Freedom Reads Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst, who served over 26 years at Rhode Island’s Adult Correctional Institution (ACI), had a wide-ranging conversation about the experience of incarceration and the importance of literature and literary events in transforming the lives of incarcerated people.

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Founder’s Take: Every Freedom Library is a Promise

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts (Photo: Keenan Hochschild)

“A yo Shy, you know this ain’t your fault right,” my man calls to tell me the day after he’s been denied parole again. I’m his lawyer. But also his friend. We've called the same prison cells home. And so he wants me to know that he doesn’t blame me for this. He says this failure ain’t on me, it’s on the system. I’ve heard it before. From other friends. Always consoling me as if I’m still going to be serving time instead of them.

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Inside Literary Prize Books Sent to Judges

By Madeline Sklar, Communications Manager at Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads team members (from left to right) David, Gabby, Mike, and Steven with the four books shortlisted for the Inside Literary Prize.
Freedom Reads team members (from left to right) David, Gabby, Mike, and Steven with the four books shortlisted for the Inside Literary Prize. (Photo: Keenan Hochschild)

In January, the Freedom Reads team packed and shipped out the four shortlisted books for the Inside Literary Prize to each of our 300 judges on the inside in 12 prisons. Five additional sets of the shortlisted books were also sent to each of the prisons for those who are not participating as judges. In addition, we are also providing copies of the books to correctional staff, to include staff in the communities being built around reading.

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Founder’s Take: We Rest on December 32nd

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts and University of New Haven Professor Randall Horton – both highly-regarded, award-winning poets – conduct a poetry reading in November 2023 at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut.
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts and University of New Haven Professor Randall Horton – both highly-regarded, award-winning poets – conduct a poetry reading in November 2023 at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, Connecticut. (Photo: Keenan Hochschild)

It hasn’t been a month since I let you know about opening our 200th Freedom Library, which happened in late October at New York’s Otisville Correctional Facility. Because our team only rests on December the 32nd, we’ll be closing out 2023 with 239 Freedom Libraries in 33 prisons and juvenile detention centers across ten states. But we have a long way to a Freedom Library in every prison cellblock in the United States. We cannot expand our reach without your support.

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Freedom Reads, National Book Foundation, Center for Justice Innovation Launch First Major U.S. Book Prize to Be Judged Exclusively by Incarcerated People

By Freedom Reads

On December 4, Freedom Reads announced the launch of this new joint initiative with the National Book Foundation and the Center for Justice Innovation, with support from Lori Feathers, literary podcaster and co-owner of Interabang Books. It’s the first major U.S.-based literary prize to be judged exclusively by incarcerated people.

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Founder’s Take: The Library as a Conduit to Possibility

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
On October 26, 2023, at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York, Freedom Reads opened its 200th Freedom Library.
On October 26, 2023, at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York, Freedom Reads opened its 200th Freedom Library. (Photo: Ivan Dominguez)

On November 29, 2023, as part of our goal of opening a Freedom Library in every cellblock in the United States, we opened four more Freedom Libraries at the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). But that ain’t half the story. Walking back inside the acres that were once a plantation but now a prison was James Washington. James entered Angola as a teenager and would go on to serve 25 years there. Those who don’t know better might call him a convict or, better still, formerly incarcerated. But once, I walked onto Angola with James. Angola, one of the most fierce prisons in this country. I watched men greet James like a brother. Watched him embraced by men he did decades with. And I watch him greeted as friend, as brother, as mentor, as counselor – not once, not even by the staff there, as inmate, prisoner, formerly incarcerated.

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