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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.

Tagged with Founder's Takes

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.

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Founder's Take: Freedom Begins With Us

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO
6 men at Garden State Correctional Facility line up to have copies of FELON signed by Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, who sits at a table.
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts signs copies of his book of poetry, FELON, after performing at Garden State Correctional Facility in New Jersey.

The paradox of incarceration is that if you’ve been inside, you desperately want to believe that the time you spent in those cells matters. You understand that you did more than weep in those cells, more than endure suffering. You know that you’ve nurtured anger and then figured out how to let it go, if you’re lucky. You know that you’ve discovered ways to forgive yourself, often long before the people in the world knew your name. You know you spent more hours than you know figuring out how to apologize, and then even more hours afraid to do it. And sadly, you know the world holds that work in slight regard.

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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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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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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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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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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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Founder’s Take: A Thousand Dreams Coming True

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
Men at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland, with Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, after helping Freedom Reads’ team members open Freedom Libraries there in June 2023.
Men at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup, Maryland, with Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, after helping Freedom Reads’ team members open Freedom Libraries there in June 2023. (Photo: Gioncarlo Valentine)

Not too long ago, the Freedom Library was but an idea. A dream under development. My entire life had been spent thinking about prison: in poetry, in essays, when I had to explain to my son what it meant to be in prison. But as much as I’d thought about prison, I’d spent little time thinking of what it would have meant to have been able to read Shakespeare before being required to by Professor Sandy Mack years after prison. When asked how I might make the most difference in addressing all the suffering caused by prisons and incarceration, I thought of what saved me: books.

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Founder’s Take: Why I Return

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
The first ever reading of Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kafar’s Redaction ocurred at Great Meadow Correctional Facility. “I let them be the first to hear some of this new work; they said the work was funky enough.”
The first ever reading of Reginald Dwayne Betts and Titus Kafar’s Redaction ocurred at Great Meadow Correctional Facility. “I let them be the first to hear some of this new work; they said the work was funky enough.”

Twenty-six years ago today, on December 8, 1996, I confessed to carjacking a man. In some ways, everything that I’ve done since then has been moving towards a kind of amends. Sometimes books are the opposite of violence, opening up the possibility for another tomorrow. I started Freedom Reads, not just to place beautiful, handcrafted wooden shelves with five hundred of the best books you can find on prison housing units all across this country, I started it to return to prisons with something more than the violence that first brought me there. 

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Founder’s Take: What does it mean to bring something beautiful into a prison?

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, front row in a fedora, with audience members at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York holding copies of Dwayne's poetry collection FELON.
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts, front row in a fedora, with audience members at Otisville Correctional Facility in New York holding copies of Dwayne's poetry collection FELON.

I tell people: several days after the Freedom Reads team opened three Freedom Libraries at Otisville Correctional Facility in late August, I was still unable to let go of how much of a wonder it was.

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Founder’s Take: We Read To Know We Are Not Alone

By Reginald Dwayne Betts, Founder & CEO of Freedom Reads

I dedicated FELON, my last poetry collection, to Christopher Tunstall, Rojai Fentress, Terrell Kelly and other friends of mine who were then still serving time in prison. The book was hardback – and because many prisons disallow hardback books, I’d struggle to get it inside. That problem led me to create an early paperback edition, the Freedom Edition of FELON, only for those on the inside. Then, I transformed the poems into a solo play I could embody and walk inside myself. Why?

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