This is the uplifting story of one Reginald Dwayne Betts Jr., a stupid mistake, and a decision to move forward.
A book of black poetry slides under a cell door in solitary confinement. And it changes everything.
Reginald Dwayne Betts Jr. goes by the name Dwayne. But for the majority of the nine years he spent in prison, he gave himself the name Shahid. It means “the witness” in Arabic.
At 16, Betts pled guilty to carjacking in Virginia and was in prison until he was 24. For many years, cultivating his identity — hard stuff for any teenager — was a mostly solitary endeavor. Books, and later poetry, became his teacher, his classroom and his peer.
“I read anything I could find. Poetry makes you reflect. Joseph Brodsky once wrote: ‘I have braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages.’ That shit says everything that I would ever want to say about mass incarceration,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview last week.
In the decade since his release from prison, Betts, now 34, has published an award-winningmemoir about coming of age in prison, written two books of poetry, received undergraduate and MFA degrees and is currently in his final year at Yale Law School.
His upcoming book of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era, will be released in October.
Learning has always been deeply important to Betts. He dreamed of playing point guard at Georgia Tech and becoming an engineer. He says numbers came easily to him and that as he grew, the two most important things to him were math and philosophy.
He started hanging out with a bad crew in his hometown of Suitland, Maryland and sneaking out of class at 16. At the time, he was taking a full load of challenging classes, including Physics, French 4 and AP U.S. History.
Everything changed on December 7, 1996. On a visit to the Springfield Mall in suburban Virginia about 20 miles from their hometown, Betts and a friend came across a man asleep in his car in the parking lot. They impulsively carjacked him and took off on what would prove to be one of the quickest roads to stalling one’s life as a teen.
At the time, carjacking in Virginia carried a maximum penalty of life in prison and the state had done away with parole. On December 8, one day after the carjacking, Betts stood before a judge and was charged with six felonies and nine years in prison.
The presiding judge had wise words for Betts, who recalled what he was told in a 2010 New Yorker article. The words are seared in his mind: “I don’t have any illusions that the penitentiary is going to help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to,” the judge said to the 16-year-old.
Due to lack of space for incoming juveniles, Betts was thrown into solitary confinement without a mattress, blanket or pillow. When he was pulled out 10 days later and moved to his cell block, Betts carried the only thing he had shown up with: a book by James Baldwin.
Betts poured himself into reading. He turned page after page of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Go Tell It on the Mountain and A Lesson Before Dying. He read George Orwell and every book by Charles Dickens. He inhaled classics like Of Mice and Men, The Grapes Of Wrath and The Jungle. He read the philosophy of Max Weber, Franz Fanon and C.L.R. James.…The Rest Here…