May 2024 Newsletter

A Public Library Like No Other

6 men wearing prison uniforms stand in line at Garden State Correctional Facility for Dwayne to sign their copies of FELON.
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.

Founder's Take

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. 

If you’re lucky, you’ve learned what it means to lead. You’ve coached sports teams, you’ve coordinated book clubs, you partnered with religious leaders. Some of us became leaders. We became managers, caregivers, dogtrainers, paralegals. My friend Terell Kelly spent years training others on how to use complicated machinery. Others spent years in the shoe shop learning how to turn pieces of leather into footwear. Friends of mine have spent decades in the kitchen training others how to be pastry chefs and line cooks. Prison might be a horrible world, but it is a world nonetheless and is not less so because there isn’t permission to name the things you’ve done on a resume.

I think about who makes up Freedom Reads. There are two worlds of us. Those who come from the most elite institutions that you can name and those who come from the most infamous. I, myself, can say I have official membership in both, carrying a state number given to me by the Virginia Department of Corrections in my head and also carrying an attorney’s number given by the State of Connecticut Bar. Both are six digits and, to be honest, both have value to me. My name is my name, and because I have a bunch of them, I’ve decided not to abandon any of them, even during the times that they make me weep.

But this is the point. Here at Freedom Reads, we are working to build a culture that says more than what we do matters. When we say we show up, we mean that we show up. And that we show up knowing that the merit and worth of who we are ain’t ever been predicated on the schools we graduated from. Those schools have helped shape us, whether they be community colleges or state schools or Yale Law School, where I learned to deeply enjoy the rich intellectual engagement that I’d gotten nowhere else on Earth. But I choose to remember the rivers that guided me through the turbulence over prison, because that past is what brought me to the halls of every elite institution I’ve set foot in, including my mother’s embrace after all those years of sorrow.

We show up, because the places that we survived have given us what we needed to get here. And we show up because we know, whether it be Yale or Harvard or Prince George’s Community College or Sussex 1 State Prison or any prison we might name, that many others who walked those same halls suffered so much that they disappeared. We show up as a reminder of who might have been saved.

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Just that it would be. And if we are who we say we are, we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing – showing up as a model for what is possible when you measure a person by the marrow. That’s the fascinating thing about all of this.

Ask anyone. I am a loudmouth, irascible, temperamental, and prone to weeping. But I love with the best of them. And I believed that we could turn an idea into a mission into a set of wings that would carry anyone who desires it to freedom. And yes, such a dream is always a hard sell. But so is democracy. So is hope. So is forgiveness. And so is mercy. So we keep on, because these words can easily become a puzzle that will allow you to find the name of every single person who has touched a Freedom Library, who has helped make this dream a reality. That’s what Jason Reynolds says is the magic of the 26 letters of the alphabet, you can take them and tell whatever story you want. The story we tell is that Freedom begins with a book – and an essential part of that is knowing that freedom begins with us, no matter where we’ve been - because freedom is a destination and a journey, but it is not an artifact of the past.

Reginald Dwayne Betts
Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

Preorder Crazy as Hell – The Best Little Guide to Black History

Book cover for Crazy as Hell - The Best Little Guide to Black History

When Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts worked as a librarian in prison, he was paid 54 cents an hour. As he sees it, that’s “crazy as hell.” On June 4, Crazy as Hell, a refreshing, insightful, sacrilegious take on African American history, written by scholars V. Efua Prince and Hoke S. Glover III, with an introduction by Dwayne, will be published by W. W. Norton.

And, what’s “crazy as hell” is that Norton donated 54 cents to Freedom Reads for every copy of the book in the first printing.

Reflections from the Inside Literary Prize Tour: Leg Two

Two images. On the left, two woman inside Minnesota Correctional Facility at Shakopee read from the book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation. On the right, three women sit in a row and discuss the books shortlisted for the inaugural Inside Literary Prize.
Inside Literary Prize judges at MCF-Shakopee discuss the four books short-listed for the inaugural Prize.

In late April and May, Freedom Reads embarked on leg two of the Inside Literary Prize tour, visiting three prisons in North Dakota and Minnesota. And, just last week, the Freedom Reads team finished up the third and final leg of the tour in Missouri and North Carolina.

Freedom Reads Communications Manager Steven Parkhurst reflects on leg two of the tour on the blog.

“Today I get to vote!” said Frenchy, at Minnesota’s only women’s prison, MCF-Shakopee. She wasn’t allowed to vote for any elected official before the Inside Literary Prize, having only been 17 at the time of her arrest and confinement. She sat in a circle of over 25 women at Shakopee who had shown up as judges for the day to select the book they felt deserved the honor of the first time Inside Literary Prize.

With Support from the Princeton University Library, First Freedom Libraries Opened in New Jersey Prisons

Two images, on the left 6 Freedom Reads team members pose and smile with empty Freedom Library bookshelves inside Garden State Correctional Facility. On the right, two men, with their backs to the camera, inside Garden State Correctional Facility shelve books on their newly opened Freedom Library.
Left: The Freedom Reads team gets ready to open Freedom Libraries at Garden State Correctional Facility. Right: Men inside Garden State Correctional Facility shelve books on their newly opened Freedom Library.

Freedom Reads, with support from the Princeton University Library, opened 9 Freedom Libraries at Garden State Correctional Facility this May – the first Freedom Libraries to be opened in New Jersey. Plus, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts performed his solo show, FELON: An American Washi Tale, for an audience inside the prison.

Freedom Libraries Opened in Rhode Island Prisons

The Freedom Reads team returned to Gloria McDonald Women’s Facility and John J. Moran Medium Security Facility in Rhode Island, where Dwayne performed FELON earlier this year, to open 17 Freedom Libraries – the first Freedom Libraries opened in Rhode Island.

With both openings in May, Freedom Reads has opened 329 Freedom Libraries in 40 adult and youth prisons across 12 states! 

Freedom Reads in the Media

Earlier this month, Fox 9 covered Freedom Reads’ Inside Literary Prize tour stop in Minnesota. And, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts spoke with Virginia Public Radio about the Freedom Library and why the work matters.

CT Insider covered the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority’s (CHEFA) $400,000 Enterprise Capital Grant to Freedom Reads, and local New Jersey news outlets covered Freedom Reads’ first Freedom Library openings in New Jersey. Plus, Broadway World wrote about the upcoming I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter adaptation, set to be co-produced by Literature to Life in partnership with Freedom Reads.

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.

Good Morning,

I wanted to take a minute to tell you and your staff thank you for the poetry reading by Roger and the opportunity provided by Freedom Reads to participate in the Judging Initiative. The reading is my first such event but will likely not be my last.

I have started reading "Felon" and am enjoying it. Find the redacted style of writing both creative and insightful. The format sends its own message all by itself.

Be well, enjoy the rest of the travelling journey.  

Jake
, Inside Literary Prize Judge at North Dakota State Penitentiary

Our work isn’t possible without your support. We hope you’ll continue to support us in our vision to open a Freedom Library in every cellblock in every prison in America.