December 2023 Newsletter

Freedom Reads News to Celebrate!

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)

Founder’s Take

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.

Let me tell you a story. Two weeks ago, we returned to MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts, where Freedom Reads opened its first Freedom Library two years ago. Then, our goal was to do a single Freedom Library in 1,000 prisons. But we soon learned from the men at MCI-Norfolk that we needed to open a Freedom Library in every cellblock at MCI-Norfolk — otherwise, we’re creating more inequity within the system. Two weeks ago, we returned to MCI-Norfolk to open an additional 15 libraries to build a community of readers at that prison.

Your support makes all of this vital work possible. As the year soon draws to a close, I hope you will consider supporting Freedom Reads as we move into 2024 with big plans to expand our reach and help more people find community in books and reimagine their futures through literature. Help us make a difference in the lives of the people in prisons and juvenile detention facilities in every state in the country. 

— Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

P.S. Thank you so much to all of you who have already given.

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

Inaugural “Inside Literary Prize” is sending a selection of National Book Award honorees to hundreds of incarcerated people in a dozen prisons across the country; Inside Literary Prize winner to be announced in June 2024.

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.

The prize will be awarded in June 2024 to one exceptional book by a jury of 300 incarcerated individuals from a dozen prisons across the nation. This new initiative seeks to expand access to our country’s most thought-provoking literature for people who are incarcerated.

Over the coming months, 25 judges at each of 12 prisons across six states—including both men’s and women’s facilities—will be given copies of the four National Book Award–honored books listed below. Freedom Reads will provide each facility with additional sets of each book for general circulation in the facility library, as well as for correctional staff. Throughout the Spring 2024, Inside Literary Prize organizers will travel to each prison to lead live discussions, conduct voting, and host literary readings with acclaimed authors previously honored by the National Book Awards.

“Reading literature and poetry throughout my nearly nine years in prison played an enormous role in shaping the person I am today,” said Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts. “Through the reading and judging of leading American literary works, the Inside Literary Prize competition will provide a national platform for incarcerated individuals to meaningfully participate in our shared national cultural conversation. Freedom Reads could not be more proud to work with our partners on this initiative as we turn this vision into an annual reality. Freedom begins with a book.”

The books to be considered for the inaugural prize were determined by a Selection Committee comprising incarcerated readers, writers, and Departments of Corrections librarians, who chose the following four books from the list of Finalists for the 2022 National Book Awards:

Tess Gunty, The Rabbit Hutch
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

Jamil Jan Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories
Viking Books / Penguin Random House

Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers

Roger Reeves, Best Barbarian
W. W. Norton & Company

A currently incarcerated member of the Selection Committee, Courtney Quillen, shared in a letter that “The experience was a wonderful one. The thrill of exciting new books is one we cherish,” adding “We are thankful to have been a part of this project.”

Corinne Leone, Director of New York State Correctional Library Services Library Services, also served on the Selection Committee, and summed up her feelings about the experience—“I wish I could read all day, lately.”

Another member of the Selection Committee, a formerly incarcerated writer named Dempsey, shared his thoughts about this initiative: “I like to read books as much as Charles Dickens liked to write them. Books were my salvation in prison. They enabled me to think better about myself and the world. As a free man, my work with Freedom Reads allows me to help those incarcerated find joy, peace, knowledge, and perspective through books. In essence, I view the Freedom Reads agenda as a gift the way literature is a gift. An eternal gift that leads one on an exploration into the highest and lowest levels of the human spirit, of the imagination, and of the heart.“

Freedom Reads Grateful for Princeton GradFutures Social Impact Fellows

Freedom Reads, in collaboration with Princeton University, has hosted two graduate students as professional interns for the past four months through the GradFutures Social Impact Fellowship program. Pria Garcelle and Cecilia "Cece" Ramsey, PhD candidates in the Department of Classics and Department of French & Italian respectively, have worked alongside our team to gain experience in working with nonprofit organizations as well as to lend their discipline specific skills to our bibliophilic mission. Here are some of their reflections on their time with us so far!

This past semester I have been working with Ivan in the Freedom Reads Communications Department and it really has been such a joy! I've learned so much already. I've researched the service-in-prisons industry, developed evergreen content strategies, and even gotten to write my first media pitch. My biggest takeaways so far are a much deeper understanding of the media needs and demands of a nonprofit. There is a notion in the humanities that a good enough idea will speak for itself, but this simply isn't true. A good idea needs to be talked about and it needs to be talked about in the right way in the right spaces so that that good idea can become a reality. It's all about knowing how to communicate! Another takeaway, and perhaps the most important, is that I have been able to see firsthand how many levels of care and consideration go into every aspect of the Freedom Reads project. The passion that drives this team is present in every single aspect of every single thing they do and it's infectious. They have such hope and to get to work alongside such a team is like a breath of fresh air. 

- Pria Garcelle

When I first read about Freedom Reads and the Social Impact Fellowship, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of such an incredible organization -- and I still get excited when I talk about it! With Colette as my mentor, my main project this semester has involved researching existing book clubs and books-to-prisons programs in order to put together a landscape review. With that research, we're working to clarify the terminology and logistics for the Book Circles initiatives. Fine-tuning the landscape review has been a fun project, especially thanks to discussions with Colette, Steven, and David. It is their invaluable experiences, their creativity, and their openness toward collaboration that have made this semester so enjoyable and rewarding for me. With that, I have to say that I feel both humbled and grateful to be part of this team, and I look forward to learning even more as we continue.

- Cece Ramsey

In The Media

In December, there was extensive media coverage of the announcement launching the Inside Literary Prize. On the day of the announcement, it began when The New York Times ran an exclusive story. The New York Times quoted Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts on the importance of this initiative – “Being able to say that this is the dopest book this year, chosen by these men and women still in prison, is ultimately about saying that their lives matter.”

That was followed by coverage at Publishers Weekly, which explained that “The Inside Literary Prize is the first of its kind in the U.S. and is modeled after France's ‘inmate Goncourt’ prize, an offshoot of the country's most prestigious book prize.” Kirkus Reviews, The Dallas Morning News, and other U.S. outlets covered the launch, as did The Guardian and other European news outlets in Italy and Hungary.

In The Guardian piece, Selection Committee member John J. Lennon, who writes for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Esquire and is serving a life sentence, is quoted as saying, “The award just tells us, hey, we can add meaning, it shows us that our word can count too…. On some level, we need that connection with the things we get from books even more than people do on the outside.”

Finally, in 2023, the world lost the extraordinary activist and performer Harry Belafonte. Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote a piece published last week in The New York Times Magazine about the life Belafonte lived – “He understood the power of celebrity to help force change for Black Americans.” As Betts wrote, “Belafonte’s star power and political awareness came together in his civil rights activism. After personally inviting Belafonte to hear a sermon of his at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in 1956, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. requested private time with him. In a conversation that Belafonte described as lasting three hours but feeling like 20 minutes, he realized that he was in the presence of greatness. For the next dozen years, Belafonte made King’s mission his own.”

On January 15, 2024, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Betts will be the keynote speaker at the 38th Annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. King, presented by and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Why This Work Matters

Each newsletter we aim to share at least one letter (or excerpt) from one of Freedom Reads now 25,000-plus Freedom Library patrons. Freedom Reads receives many letters from the inside. They mean so much to us. And we respond to each and every one of them.

Dear Mr. Betts,

On behalf of me and every Cherokee here at the Maine State Prison, we would like to thank you for such a wonderful gift of books and beautiful bookshelf. It was a great surprise upon returning from work for the day and seeing all those books and new shelves that they were on. I would like to share what I saw through my eyes; people sitting Indian style around the bookshelf, one older person sitting in a chair reading the back cover of a book, while several others were discussing about the books. It was kind of like seeing children on Christmas morning after all the presents were opened. I saw a couple of people out of their cell who you never see unless it’s mealtime. Your saying of freedom begins with a book is spot on. I find myself reading a lot more at night and hardly bothering watching TV. As of right now, I am currently reading all about the Cherokee history and folklore which is quite interesting. I’ll be reading it for a while as it is over 5,000 pages. Sure helps to keep my mind busy and sharp. Again, I want to extend my thanks. Keep reading!


Chief “Bear”

Join us this holiday season and help open Freedom Libraries in prisons and juvenile detention facilities across the nation.

Handcrafted bookcases at Freedom Reads’ headquarters, in production and waiting to be transported to Freedom Library openings in prisons and juvenile detention centers across the nation.
Handcrafted bookcases at Freedom Reads’ headquarters, in production and waiting to be transported to Freedom Library openings in prisons and juvenile detention centers across the nation. (Photo: Ivan Dominguez)