Freedom Reads Opens Freedom Libraries in Rhode Island Prisons

National non-profit Freedom Reads opens 17 Freedom Libraries inside Gloria McDonald Women's Facility and John J. Moran Medium Security Facility

The national non-profit Freedom Reads announced today the opening of 17 new Freedom Libraries across two Rhode Island prisons, including three in the Gloria McDonald Women's Facility and 14 in the John J. Moran Medium Security Facility. These libraries will be opened directly in cellblocks across the prisons, allowing incarcerated individuals direct, 24/7 access to inspiring literature. These will be the first Freedom Libraries to open and serve readers in the state of Rhode Island. As of today, Freedom Reads has opened 329 Freedom Libraries across 40 adult and youth prisons in 12 states.

Earlier this year, in February, Freedom Reads brought its first events to Rhode Island, at both of these prisons in fact. Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts presented FELON: An American Washi Tale, a performance which explores the experiences, memories, and consequences of incarceration through poetry, storytelling, and the art of Japanese paper making. In addition, Dwayne and Freedom Reads Communications Manager Steven Parkhurst, who served over 26 years at the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) in Rhode Island, engaged in a wide-ranging dialogue about the experience of incarceration and the role of literature and access to books, writers, and artists in transforming the lives of incarcerated people.

“Freedom Reads shows up because people in prison matter,” said Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts. “We’re excited to open our first Freedom Libraries in Rhode Island today, and with the handcrafted wooden bookcases and new books, open up possibilities and reignite hope for the people incarcerated there. We’re grateful to the Rhode Island Department of Corrections for supporting Freedom Reads’ mission and partnering with us to make these openings happen. After today, we’re 17 libraries closer to our vision of a Freedom Library in every cellblock in every prison in America.”

“Reading books is a privilege we all enjoy that helps us to expand our horizons, and has the power to change lives; a book is a dream you hold in your hands,” said Barry Weiner, Assistant Director Rehabilitative Services of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. “We are privileged to be able to introduce specially selected libraries of hundreds of books for several of our housing units in our men’s medium security and women’s facilities. Freedom Reads, led by formerly incarcerated individuals who have improved their lives through literary works of art such as those we are now able to offer our population right in their housing units, has provided these books to us at no cost to the Rhode Island taxpayers. We are excited about having these books available and look forward to the hope that they will bring to those who embrace them.”

 “One book can change your life,” said Steven Parkhurst, Communications Manager at Freedom Reads. “It can propel you on an upward and positive trajectory. The same way one bad decision, one car ride, one drink or one regrettable night can send you on a downward trajectory. Reading books in prison got me to the other side of serving seven days short of 30 years in prison.”

Freedom Reads is a first-of-its-kind organization that empowers people in prison through literature to imagine new possibilities for their lives. The Freedom Libraries are the brainchild of 2021 MacArthur Fellow and Yale Law School graduate Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was sentenced in Virginia to nine years in prison at the age of 16. Each bookcase is handcrafted out of maple, walnut, oak, or cherry wood, designed to contrast the austerity of prison spaces as well as evoke Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s observation about the "arc of the moral universe” bending “towards justice."

The Freedom Library collection is not only beloved, but indispensable for readers on the inside who find spiritual nourishment in the written word. Books in the Freedom Library have been carefully curated through consultations with hundreds of poets, novelists, philosophers, teachers, friends, and voracious readers. The libraries include contemporary poetry, novels, and essays alongside classic works such as The Odyssey and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Freedom Libraries bolster a new type of community among those inside, a community in which reaching for a book can be as spontaneous as human curiosity.