November 2023 Newsletter

200 Freedom Libraries and Counting

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)

Founder's Take

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.

Prisons are geographies of suffering. But we have a choice about what stories we infuse this idea of prison with. James Washington, after serving 25 years in a place that’s very name has evoked fear for more than a century, returned with a different story. Since his release from prison, James has been working at Freedom Reads. He had asked that the openings take place yesterday, as November 29 is his birthday. Indeed, we opened two of the four Freedom Libraries in the inpatient drug rehabilitation center at Angola, where James spent time as a sponsor and mentor. “It was the best birthday gift to go back and give inspiration to those I spent so much time with and who I love the most, and who love me the most,” James said.

James’ story reminds me of why we do this work. The library is a conduit to possibility. In less than two years, Freedom Reads has opened more than 200 Freedom Libraries. That milestone took place at the Otisville Correctional Facility in New York where we returned with Pulitzer Prize-winning Freedom Ambassador Mitchell S. Jackson to bring a Freedom Library to every cellblock in the prison. Now, all the incarcerated individuals and staff members at Otisville have access to a Freedom Library. At the official opening event that afternoon, there was a live performance of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, adapted and developed by our partner Literature to Life from Junot Diaz’s award-winning novel.

Last month, I shared with you how not too long ago this was all just an idea, a dream under development. The realization of more than 200 Freedom Libraries in 33 prisons and juvenile detention facilities and of serving more than 25,000 library patrons in prisons across America has shown me that dreams can come true. Our dream now, our vision in fact, is a Freedom Library in every cellblock in every prison in America. With your support, we’ve come this far. And we’re just getting started.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, Freedom Reads Founder & CEO

Freedom Reads Attends NCHEP

Freedom Reads Chief Program Officer and Director of Operations Colette Johnson and Program Coordinator Steven Parkhurst attended the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP), hosted by the Alliance of Higher Education in Prison (AHEP) in Atlanta, Georgia from November 9th to 11th. The conference, which convenes in-person every other year, was attended by over 750 higher education faculty and staff, researchers, department of corrections staff, and nonprofit leaders as well as formerly and currently incarcerated students. Panels on November 9th included live streams with currently incarcerated students involved in education across the country.

With the restoration of Pell to incarcerated students, the field of higher education is projected to expand exponentially in the coming years. Higher education in prison is in a transformational moment, grappling with questions about the use and adoption of technology, inclusion of student voices in evaluation, and the purpose of learning.

As a national organization committed to self-exploration and lifelong learning, Freedom Reads supports our library and educational partners in our shared goals around the discovery of new knowledge.

News of Interest

On November 14, Literary Hub published a piece by Warren Bronson entitled Sacred Space: Why Libraries Are Essential to Incarcerated Writers. Bronson offers an autobiographical account of the significant libraries he has passed through in his life and how each one became vitally sacred to its patrons, its employees, and its community. In his piece, among other powerful observations, he wrote “You’d think that each library, like the prison—or civilian—community it calls home or the varied librarians it employs, would be its own entity, alive and evolving to its own tune, its own contents, its own space, yet with the same promise of respite, of sacred. You’d be right.”

And on November 17, The New York Times ran an essay by Max Kenner, the founder and executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative at Bard College. In Something Wonderful Is Happening in American Prisons. Really., Kenner explores the recent change in the law to allow people who are incarcerated to receive Pell Grants after decades of being locked out of this federal program providing tuition assistance for low-income students. In the piece, he wrote: “Amid the controversies surrounding higher education today — from high-stakes testing to culture wars to affirmative action — here is one thing everyone can agree on: We are a long way from engaging the full range of American talent in a way that prepares us for the challenges of the 21st century. Tragically, incarcerated Americans are among the best groups to look to for our untapped potential.”

Beyond Bars Literary Journal

Georgia State University is currently accepting submissions for Beyond Bars, a literary magazine edited by incarcerated students as well as GSU graduate students in creative writing. There are three incarcerated editors who play a seminal role in the design, vision, and execution of the magazine, and they are eager to read and publish the quality work of incarcerated artists and writers. Beyond Bars welcomes submissions from those who have been affected by the carceral system and those within the carceral system.

The Principal Investigator of this project, Dr. Beth Gylys (distinguished Professor of Creative Writing and Poetry at Georgia State University), writes, “Our ultimate mission in starting such a unique literary publication, with a blended editorial staff of traditional graduate and incarcerated students, is to build bridges of communication and understanding between the incarcerated community, the academic community, and the population at large."

The flyer below provides additional information.

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.

To Whom It May Concern,

Hello, my name is Alton. I was incarcerated at Maine Correctional Center where I was introduced to your program. It was amazing to have access to all of the new books that you brought into us. Since then, I have been moved to Bolduc Correctional Facility which is a minimum security facility in Maine. I'm writing in hopes that maybe it would be possible to get you to consider bringing your program here also. The library here is okay but is very limited and pretty much outdated. I know for a fact that having that happen here would make many of us extremely happy because as you know Freedom begins with a book! I'm not sure what the requirements are for a facility to be eligible to get this amazing gift, but I hope that you will at least look into it for myself and all of the other men here. I appreciate your time and will keep my hopes up that I will hear back from you with some good news. I hope you have a great day.

Thank you,


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)