Reginald Dwayne Betts serves as a national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice. He is also the author of A Query of Freedom and Shahid Reads His Own Palm. 4 Way
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In 1996, Reginald Dwayne Betts — a 16-year-old honor student with braces — utilised a pistol to carjack a man who had been sleeping in his car. Shortly thereafter, he was caught, sentenced as an adult and sent to an adult prison, where he served more than eight years, such as one year in solitary at a supermax facility.
“I was 5 feet, 5 inches and 120 pounds. I went to prison with grown guys, and I went into what men and women readily acknowledge as a treacherous and a wild location,” Betts tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “My judge, when he sentenced me, he said, ‘I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help, but you could get some thing out of it if you select to.’ “
As it turns out, the time he spent behind bars helped shape Betts’ future as a poet. He had constantly loved to study, but in prison, books — and writing — became a mental escape. One particular day, when he was in solitary confinement, a fellow prisoner slipped an anthology named The Black Poets below his cell door.
“That’s the book that changed my life,” Betts says. “It introduced me to Etheridge Knight, to Rob Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez and so a lot of countless black writers and black poets that genuinely shaped who it is that I wanted to be in the globe.”
Betts completed his GED while in prison. Right after his release in 2005, he continued his education and is now a law student at Yale University. He is also a poet and author. His most current book is a collection of poems called Bastards of the Reagan Era.
Betts says the name of the book holds double which means: “1st is that it’s this concept of being fatherless, but the other notion is … this notion that complete sort of generation of young men and women had been bastards of an era, of the Reagan era. I believe about my personal life, I consider about the life of individuals that is close to me, and I just recognize that we have been … we were just lost — lost in time, we were lost in space, and we had been struggling to discover, I think, a sense of who we had been.”
On the significance of the “Reagan era”
I was born in 1980 and, I feel, the “war on drugs” had a massive impact on my childhood, the policies around the Reagan era, around mandatory minimum sentences created enormous changes in the community — and also our response to men and women who had been struggling with addiction.
I took my son to a museum in Chicago and we had been watching a short clip about woolly mammoths, and some thing I saw truly struck me as profound: If you see a site of trauma, a web site of enormous tragedy, a mudslide or some thing … you will see the youngsters in the middle of a circle and all of the mothers around those children.
And so when I feel about the bastards of the Reagan era, when I believe about what did not come about for us, I believe we have been basically abandoned by society in large ways, and you can’t appear at our lives and see that circle of love and care and nurturing around us.
On what went via his mind as he pulled out a gun on the individual he carjacked
I consider individuals know, really, they know if they have any intention of shooting somebody. And the gun I had was on safety, and I didn’t even know how to operate the gun. And so I consider that at least in my scenario, I knew that I wasn’t going to shoot him. And I believe that if he would’ve not open the door or ran, I would’ve most likely been standing in the parking lot seeking like a fool. But that doesn’t negate the fear that he had, and that doesn’t negate the sort of lack of empathy that I showed in that moment.
So if the query is ‘What could lead me to that?’ I consider it really is that sometimes you get into a place exactly where you do not comprehend that your decisions have genuine ramifications in the present, and real ramifications for the future. Due to the fact honestly, if we had this conversation now, [there is] no way that I could picture carrying out that. But I was 16, and I just did not feel in the same way that I consider as an adult. And due to the fact it was in the realm of possibilities that could occur … I was presented with the chance and I didn’t have the wherewithal or the courage or the frequent sense to turn away.
On why he pleaded guilty
It is not that I was unaware of the reality that a 16-year-old could go to jail or could get locked up in a juvenile detention center. But I just thought that I was wrong, and I was caught, and that the greatest point for me to do was to admit being wrong and uncover a way to make amends. So even even though I was study my Miranda rights, I wasn’t thinking about the truth that by confessing, by speaking to the police officers, that could lead to diverse charges becoming filed, that could take away some things that my lawyer might’ve done to maybe negotiate a plea deal. … I didn’t recognize what would occur from that decision to speak. …
If somebody would’ve told me — ‘Listen, if you talk to the police this day you will likely end up going to prison, you happen to be 16 years old, you are 125 pounds, you will finish up spending more than a year in solitary confinement, you will end up spending time in some of the worst prisons in Virginia’ — if somebody would’ve told me that that was what I was hunting up against, then I probably wouldn’t have stated something.
On reading in prison
Just before I got incarcerated I read for pleasure and I study simply because it was a duty, I just loved books. When I got locked up, I feel, books became magic. Books weren’t really magic when I was a youngster, they were just one thing that I [enjoyed] reading. I believed it was crucial, but when I got locked up it became magic, it became a signifies to an end. … It became the way in which I seasoned the world, but far more importantly, I feel, it became the way in which I discovered about what it implies to be human, and to be flawed and to want items that you can not have.
On connecting with poetry in solitary confinement
The story about solitary confinement, I consider, genuinely is the way that I became a poet and a way that I broadened my horizons intellectually and I sort of diversified my reading. Due to the fact in solitary confinement you couldn’t have books and you couldn’t request books and you could not go to the library, but folks would somehow find methods to get books into their cells.
So it would be this rotating cycle of books that existed in solitary confinement. Somebody would leave a hole [and] they would leave four books in the cell with them, so I would go into a cell and locate  books. … 1 afternoon I asked for a book and stated, ‘Can somebody send me a book?’ and somebody slid a book under my cell door, to this day I have no thought who sent it to me, but it was an anthology by Dudley Randall, it was called The Black Poets and that is the book that changed my life.
On why he chose to go to law school
When Howard [University] rejected me, when I was rejected for jobs, when I have to fill out applications for apartments and they ask if I’ve been convicted of a felony, when my close friends don’t get apartments due to the fact of their records … until law college, I never ever believed that you could do anything about that. And so I decided to perform on the civil side of factors and I program on carrying out employment discrimination function. I program on representing individuals in pardons. I strategy on representing people on parole. … I feel like carrying out that function is the type of point I could do and feel excellent about.