March 2024 Newsletter

March Forth with 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 4th, 2024 (left). The Freedom Reads team with bookcases outside of Dillwyn Correctional Center (right) on March 5th – the team opened 32 Freedom Libraries at Dillwyn and Buckingham Correctional Centers in Virginia in March.

Founder’s Take

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.

I cannot write any of this without weeping. I walked into prison on March 4, 2024 with Kevin Williams, who was sentenced to Life + 33 years. I walked into prison with Marcus Bullock, who was sentenced to 8 years at 15-years-old. The three of us know what it means to wake up for chow call or count time in a Virginia prison.

For seventy-two minutes, I did the best I could to tell a story of how freedom just might begin with a book.

And during the Q&A, a remarkable thing happened. A young man said that in 2008, when he was in the same R cells, the same solitary confinement cells they tossed me into as a sixteen year old, that someone slid my book under his cell door and it was the first he'd read cover to cover. 

Someone said to me, as half the people in the prison called me Shahid and the other half called me Dwayne, a friend said: Dwayne, don't take this the wrong way, but you're in your element, which is a way of saying that as much as some people imagine I am celebrated in the world, when I walk into a prison with men who do not know my name, I know that they will know that story and that the story is what will matter because it is the story that is not singular and that ties us to a thing that hums in the air when we walk and that sometimes threatens to suffocate us but more than we know lets us soar.

Case in point, I was in a city that I’m learning to know more by its prisons than its streets. And I am there to sing this song of mine that I’d just sung in a prison. And on that night I am before hundreds of people and I am free and have not braved a single metal detector to sing my song. And still, I am reminded of prison.

A young woman approaches me after I leave the stage. And her smile makes me want to be that happy in the world. I look behind me because of all the things that people do after listening to me read, break out from ear to ear isn’t on the list – or rarely is. But she does. And she tells me a story of a day I walked into a women’s prison just outside of the city that she calls home. I laughed that day, in the face of all the suffering and sorrow because sometimes you should laugh. And I had books. And she remembered the Freedom Library, and we smiled as if we were kin, because that’s what literature might do.

Maybe Camus was right and “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Walking back into the place that almost killed me on the day I was supposed to walk away from it all on the same day 19 years ago is the most absolutely free thing I’ve ever done.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

See media coverage of Freedom Reads’ March 4th events on ABC 8 News and CBS 19 News.

Inside Literary Prize: Judging Orientations & Kicking Off the ILP Tour

Image with covers of the four finalist books for the Inside Literary Prize, including Best Barbarian by Roger Reeves, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai, The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty, and South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry.

Freedom Reads Program Coordinators David Perez Jr and Gabby Colangelo provide an update on the Inside Literary Prize, the first-ever US-based literary prize awarded exclusively by currently incarcerated people.

From David and Gabby:

From January to March, we had the opportunity to meet with most of the 300 Inside Literary Prize judges from 12 different prisons across the nation via Zoom. Judges watched a video message from Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Dwayne, who highlighted the importance of their role as a judge: “What you have to remember is that your voice matters, your opinion matters, and that all of these writers that wanted to win this prize and didn’t, and the ones that will ultimately win, are excited and encouraged and happy to have you reading their work and talking about it.” Judges also learned more about Freedom Reads and discussed the nitty-gritty of their role as a judge. We had an amazing time meeting folks on the inside and doing what the Freedom Reads team loves doing the most - talking about books. 

We’re busy in the office preparing to leave for the first leg of the Inside Literary Prize tour on March 31st. In just a few days, we’ll be meeting judges from Arizona and Colorado in person, holding judging sessions on the four short-listed books and facility-wide poetry readings featuring Dwayne himself. We’re buzzing with excitement as we pack books and sound equipment for our many-miles trip. Later in April and May, we’ll get to meet judges from North Carolina, Minnesota, Missouri, and North Dakota. We can’t wait to hear what folks think of the books!

Freedom Reads Participating in New Haven’s Great Give

Freedom Reads is gearing up to participate in The Great Give, an annual, New Haven giving event created by the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven! With the aim to raise visibility and resources for nonprofits in the Greater New Haven area, The Great Give is an opportunity to increase the impact of your giving with more than $224K in matching funds available to participants. 

The Great Give is happening on May 1-2. Stay tuned for the best times to give to maximize your impact!

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.

Letter from Library Patron Carl H. in Virginia.

Hello Dwayne and The Freedom Reads Family,

Thank You and Thank God first and foremost. Today was a very blessed day for all of us. Mostly, for being blessed to be present and apart of such an enlightening and powerful performance of theatrical art. Also a blessed day for you, the significance in the date you chose to gift us with this performance, March 4, the day you were released from prison. Wow!! My God! This is a release date to all of us now. You may ask yourself, “A release from what?” Dwayne, you may not really know the impact you and your team had on us, not only us that attend this heartfelt event, but also the ones that are getting the aftershock of your message, your performance as they listen to us talking about it as we share with others.

– Carl, Library Patron at Buckingham Correctional Center, Virginia

Keep Up with Freedom Reads

Stay up-to-date on Freedom Reads’ latest library openings and literary events, the Inside Literary Prize tour, and more from Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts on Freedom Reads social media channels!

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Freedom Reads’ work is only possible because of your support. Thank you for your generous gifts.

We hope you’ll continue to support us in our mission to open Freedom Libraries in every cellblock across the country.

The Freedom Reads team packed and shipped over 300 copies of Scenes from My Life by Michael K. Williams to 30 Book Circles chapters inside prisons in 10 states this month.