At age 16, Reginald Dwayne Betts, an honor student, was sentenced to nine years in prison after committing a carjacking. There he took up reading and writing poetry and earned his high school diploma. Despite struggling to find employment and realize his academic goals upon his release, Betts eventually earned a B.A. from the University of Maryland, an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College’s Master’s Program for Writers, and a J.D. from Yale Law School.
He is now an attorney advocating for prisoners who have found themselves in circumstances similar to his own, has published three books, and is working toward a Ph.D. in law at Yale.
As part of Our Lady of the Lake University’s Social Justice Reading Series, Betts will read from his work Monday, Feb. 18, at 7 p.m. in the Thiry Auditorium. Co-sponsored by My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio, the event is free and open to the public.
The interview below has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
Arrie Porter: How would you best describe yourself?
Reginald Dwayne Betts: As a poet, a writer, a father, and a husband.
AP: How does a 16-year-old honor student find himself in that kind of situation?
RDB: That’s hard to answer. Mostly because the question suggests … it happens on a regular basis or [that there is] something about my situation that you could read into. Young men [who are incarcerated] disappear into the system, and [they] just live to survive. Then they come home and disappear back into society. I try to write about what happened, as a poet, writer, public speaker.
So, a few things happened. Nobody had real conversations with me about the world I was trying to navigate, and things I needed to do to get to the world I might want to be in. I mean, I’m talking to you from the 20th floor of the federal courthouse in Philadelphia where I work. And I have classmates and kids who always expected to be in places like this, because [someone told them about them. For example], my son knows about [the courthouse] because I’m here … Something changes when you begin to inform people about places. The truth is you have to know about the place to get here … and the longer it takes you to find out about them, the more unlikely it becomes you’ll get there.
There are 10-year-olds who know the [courthouse] now because their dad is locked up, or dad just came home, and they have to come here with him for some reason. Well, that introduction to the place suggests something else for their future. [You can’t blame] the victim [without] pointing out structural flaws.
A system that fails people who should otherwise be successful is failing everybody. Having been a good student, that’s kind of a huge failure. But the lack of social safety net, structural problems, teachers, and principals who didn’t know how to respond to young people and almost assured I would get caught up – There wasn’t anything to save me from myself.
AP: How do you suggest others help and guide young black boys? What do you tell your sons?
RDB: My wife [and I] are very involved. I coach basketball. My son [and I] read books together. This morning I talked to him about [the government] shutdown. But not every parent has the opportunity to be involved. We live in a very different community and environment than where I grew up. My son is in fifth grade in a good school, and he’s never been in a fight, never had a teacher call about his behavior. It’s not so much that he’s a better kid – although he probably is that too, both of my sons – but that they live in a community where certain things aren’t acceptable and not part of the program.
It has a lot to do with how adults interact with kids, and how kids interact with adults. When I was a kid, the neighborhood and schools weren’t that bad, but teachers, principals, and vice principals didn’t have an understanding of how to respond to young people in a different way. So small things snowball, they accumulate, and you get characterized as a certain kind of person. Also, some live in a space where they face profound challenges, and you have to talk with young people in those communities about those really, really profound challenges. It’s not as if they aren’t aware of them.
Think about what you personally can do for your kids or grandkids, not the broader society. I think about what I can do and what wasn’t done for me, decisions made by teachers to routinely suspend me rather than introduce me to college programs, placing me in gifted and talented courses, but never doing anything to make that more than just a label… . There are 1,000 decisions that go into anyone’s incarceration.
AP: Do you have to struggle to get to purpose?
RDB: Struggle to get to purpose? I’m not sure. But in the life I live, I guess it’s helpful to give meaning to what happened. It boils down to awareness, and I get awareness from different places. That’s why I like literature. It’s an opportunity to live vicariously and learn. Children today, including my sons, know the foundation of who they will become. Outside of sports, growing up I didn’t know anyone else who felt that way. I was so young when I got locked up. I never thought I would be a writer, didn’t see it as a vocation. Before, I wrote a couple poems about girls but didn’t start writing seriously or consistently until I was in prison. I never considered myself a writer and never knew I could earn money doing it. And I’m happy my journey to writing wasn’t structured … .
AP: What inspires you to write now?
RDB: I hear the word “inspiration” and think “hopefulness,” and don’t really write from hope. What pushes me to write is trying to figure something out, starting a public conversation. I’m not someone who listens a lot about politics, but I am concerned about the politics of mass incarceration, crime, and punishment. … I’m trying to figure out how to provide a better example of how to operate and move in the world for [others] and myself.