June 2024 Newsletter

Freedom Reads: What Started as a Dream

6 members of the Freedom Reads team pose for a photo around Freedom Libraries in a loading dock at Garden State Correctional Facility
The Freedom Reads team at Garden State Correctional Facility in New Jersey.

Founder's Take

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.

Reginald Dwayne Betts
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

Freedom Libraries Opened in Louisiana Prisons

The Freedom Reads team returned to Louisiana to open Freedom Libraries across two Louisiana prisons, including ten in Rayburn Correctional Center and one in Raymond Laborde Correctional Center. Freedom Reads had previously opened one Freedom Library at Raymond Laborde. 

To date, Freedom Reads has opened 340 Freedom Libraries across 41 adult and youth prisons in 12 states!

Closing out the inaugural Inside Literary Prize tour

Left: Inside Literary Prize judges and members of the Freedom Reads team sit and pose for a group photo at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina. Right: Inside Literary Prize judges in Missouri sit in a circle to discuss the four shortlisted books for the inaugural Prize.
Left: Inside Literary Prize judges and members of the Freedom Reads team at Nash Correctional Institution in North Carolina. Right: Inside Literary Prize judges in Missouri discuss the four shortlisted books for the inaugural Prize.

At the end of May, the Freedom Reads team embarked on the final leg of the three-part Inside Literary Prize tour, visiting four prisons across North Carolina and Missouri. As always, our visits were filled with thought-provoking discussions about the four-shortlisted books for the Prize and poetry readings by acclaimed authors. 

With the ballots now cast, we’re excited to announce the winner of the inaugural Inside Literary Prize this August. Stay tuned!

Celebrating Pride: From Prison and Beyond

Freedom Reads Library Coordinator David Perez Jr poses with a Pride flag
Freedom Reads Library Coordinator David Perez Jr

Freedom Reads Library Coordinator David Perez Jr writes about celebrating LGBTQ+ Pride in prison and beyond on the blog.

I am grateful to say that I work for an organization that values and honors our intersectional identities, and provides a curated collection of literature to cellblocks across the nation that includes a number of authors from the LGBTQ+ community. So that when people pick up a book they feel understood and a little less alone.

Changing Lives Through Literature

6 members of the Freedom Reads team pose for a photo around Freedom Libraries in a loading dock at Garden State Correctional Facility
Freedom Reads Library Production Assistant Mike (second from right) and the Freedom Reads team with Freedom Libraries in Garden State Correctional Facility.

In May, with generous support from Princeton University Library, the Freedom Reads team opened 9 Freedom Libraries at Garden State Correctional Facility in New Jersey. Freedom Reads Library Production Assistant Mike Byrd reflects on the openings – his first since joining the Freedom Reads team – on the blog.

Being a part of the Freedom Library openings there was special to me because I realized that the work I had been doing on the Freedom Libraries mattered. That these Freedom Libraries were literally changing housing unit spaces nationwide, but most importantly, the culture of the prison as well. Literature was changing lives.

Freedom Reads in the Media

At the beginning of June, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts spoke with Russ Roberts on the EconTalk podcast about reading Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" from prison, and his introduction to the forthcoming republication of King's letter by HarperCollins Publishers. Later in the month, Dwayne joined Annika Pergament on Spectrum News NY1 to reflect on Juneteenth and speak about Norton’s recent release, Crazy as Hell: The Best Little Guide to Black History, for which he wrote the introduction.

Freedom Reads also closed out the month with a feature from 9 News Denver on our Inside Literary Prize tour stop at La Vista Correctional Facility back in April.

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.

I would like to humbly express my gratitude and thankfulness for the support you’ve demonstrated to us inmates all throughout the states empowering us through literature to confront what prison does to the spirit. Thanks to the 500 book collection on the beautiful hand-made wooden bookshelves in the housing units here at BKCC where there are no barriers to access, I took the initiative to start a book club program! Selecting one inmate from each pod to gather once a week to have an open dialogue on how the profound truths from this one book impact our lives today. Thanks so much for the opportunities you’ve created.

Lynell
, Freedom Library Patron at Buckingham Correctional Center in Virginia

Our work isn’t possible without your support. Thank you for supporting us in our vision to open a Freedom Library in every cellblock in every prison in America.