The nine years years that Reginald Dwayne Betts spent in prison didn’t stop him from being one of this year’s recipients of the prestigious “genius” grant through the MacArthur Fellowship.
It’s not the remarkable accomplishments Betts achieved since his prison stretch — including earning a law degree from Yale University — that brought him a MacArthur Fellowship, but the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s faith that he will continue to make a significant impact in the future.
Like this year’s other MacArthur fellows, Betts will be awarded a $625,000 grant to be paid over five years in quarterly installments. Grant winners may use the money any way they want.
If the past is any indication, the world can expect Betts, 40, to continue the fight he began in prison to help incarcerated people and society at large understand that such people retain their dignity and worth as human beings despite their mistakes. Toward that end, Betts is not only a legal advocate for people serving long, potentially dehumanizing stretches behind bars, but he’s also constantly working on establishing “freedom libraries” in prisons.
He credits the books he read in prison with helping him understand how he ended up there, giving him a precious taste of freedom, and opening him up to a world of possibilities he might inhabit upon release.
The literature Betts read behind bars was so inspirational that he developed into a writer with four books of poetry to his name, with many of the works dealing with his years in lockup. His time included about 14 months in solitary confinement.
In addition to his legal work in Connecticut and his poetry, Betts is a member of local and national task forces pushing for an end to cash bail and court fees, which critics say is often little more than an additional anchor around the necks of the poor, who are disproportionately Black and Latino. Groups he works with are also pushing to limit the length of prison terms and end the practice of sending juveniles to adult prisons. He went to adult prison at the age of 16 despite his impressive academic record at the time.
“People in prison are not obsessed with prison. People in prison, they become obsessed with freedom,” Betts says in a video made by the MacArthur Foundation. “If I write about prison every day for the rest of my life, the thing that I’m really writing about is that desire, that chase, that want, that hope for freedom. And right now, I build libraries in prison, because I believe people serving time deserve access to the books that give us dignity.”