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New Haven-based program is helping to empower inmates through literature

RODNAE Productions

Reginald Dwayne Betts founded Freedom Reads to bring literature to prisons. Betts, who finished his sentence 23 years ago and has since completed his law degree from Yale Law School, wants to make sure inmates not only have a book to read, but a community to share it with. He’s helped bring books to 40 states in the country — and counting.

WSHU: Talk to me about Freedom Reads. What inspired the program?

RDB: I think the easiest way to say it is that somebody asked me if I wanted to have as big an impact on the world that I imagined I could have, what would I want to do? And, you know, since I went to prison when I was 16, I pretty much constantly thought about what it meant to be incarcerated, and what does it mean to redeem yourself? What does it mean to search for redemption? What does it mean to develop yourself into the person you want to be? And for me, books have always been a conduit to that.

So I thought: We put millions of people in prison, I would put millions of books in the prison. And I would do it one Freedom Library at a time, you know, one 500-book, micro-collection at a time. And we put the libraries on the housing units and create a locus point where people could come and commune and really discover what it means to become through the world books.

WSHU: You were incarcerated, how would a program like this have helped you?

RDB: You know, it's interesting because a lot of people in prison, they work full-time jobs. So, you can't get to the library. I mean, I did five years before we even had a prison that had a library. So a program like this would have helped me because it would have given me access to a range of books right in front of me.

But also men around me who might have been mentors, they would have had the books that could be in their hands to create a locus point for me to recognize who they were, it would have probably given some others a purpose of function, a possibility to have conversations that we weren't even contemplating having. More importantly a lot of books I love that I didn't have access to, I would have had access to.

WSHU: What kind of literature is featured in the libraries?

RDB: Oh, it's the gamut. I mean, you have Toni Morrison, James Baldwin — you have Marquez. But you also have Jonathan Lethem, you know, you have Walter Mosley, you have Raymond Chandler — like, it really runs the gamut, and it's contemporary work. It is classic work. You know, 15-16% of the books are in Spanish. It really is a world contained in the 500 books.

WSHU: What kind of feedback have you received?

RDB: I think pretty consistently people have said that the books are a kind of lifeforce to them. And it's not just the books. It's the fact that we show up. We show up to put the libraries in place. We show up to shelve the books. We bring writers in. And so you know, people consistently talk to us about how this has created a new possibility for community. I remember, we have videos of guys talking like, ‘man these are really good books.’ You have somebody holding up Maya Angelou and talking about how it touched him.

So, it's been important for us to see the impact of the work. Because we always said if we build it, people will come. But now we get a chance. I mean, we've done dozens of libraries here in Connecticut, and we've got an opportunity to see just what it means to return.

WSHU: What's next for the program?

RDB: We have libraries that we put at the York Correctional Center here in Connecticut. We have some in [Cheshire Correctional Institution], but in Cheshire, we have three, but there are more than 10 housing units there. So we need to bring more to Cheshire, we're not at [MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution] yet. You know, we're not at [Osborn Correctional Institution] yet. There are a bunch of prisons here in Connecticut that need libraries, in the same way that there are a bunch of prisons here in Connecticut that need this work.

There’s a lot of prisons all across the country. So, what's next is continuing to raise the money to make the mission possible, but continuing to show up in prisons in ways that has never before happened. Bringing beauty, bringing books and bringing the people inside to have the kind of conversations that we believe could help transform people's lives.

Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.