Founder's Take: What Started as a Dream

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

It was all a dream. Or not a dream, but a fantasy, this belief that people would get behind the idea of the Freedom Library. The Freedom Library, which, at its root, is simply the notion that beauty and literature matter. That nature matters. That incarceration should not deprive people of these things. To put this all in another way, I’ll say that I was thinking like they thought with the Field of Dreams, that is: If you build it, they will come.

And the reality is that folks have come. We’ve gone from an idea to a concept to an architectural design to workshopping in RHINO to a prototype to almost 350 handcrafted walnut, maple, oak, and cherry Freedom Libraries in prisons across this country. What was a dream is now a reality.

Still, I’m reminded that this success is just 1% of what’s needed. We have a long way to go. And I think, how will we get there? I mean, I stress about the getting there. Stress sometimes enough for John Henry. Then we get a letter at Freedom Reads that reminds us of why we’ll get there.

A few days ago, we got a check for $1,000 dollars from a state Department of Corrections. There was little information attached. Just a man’s name. The state number said he was in prison. A day later, the kite arrived. This brother had been a judge for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize, the first and only major literary prize in the United States that is decided by currently incarcerated people and awarded for a recently published book. His letter talks about how moved he was by the experience, and by the work of Freedom Reads. He thanks us and apologizes for not giving more, but says the $1,000 is all that he has.

Back when I was in prison, I once worked in the prison law library and was paid .54 cents an hour. A thousand dollars can purchase a lot in the penitentiary. Food from commissary — clothes — sneakers — books. I would have lived lovely off $1,000 and am certain that I never had that much money in my account during my entire sentence. To earn that much money while inside I would have had to work 1,851 hours.

This single gift is a profound reminder of why we do this work. This is the metric of success that matters most, the ways in which we are able to move those who are just like us into believing an idea matters enough to put all you have behind it.