I understand that I was guilty.
. . . I didn't do it because I didn't have a father.
~ R. Dwayne Betts
Today in America, an African American male "can expect to spend on average 3.09 years in prison or jail" over his lifetime, according to the study "Years of Life Lost to Prison", published in the Harm Reduction Journal. That "average" male, the study also indicates, "can expect to spend on average 61.80 times longer in prison or jail" than a member of the lowest group at risk of incarceration: a Caucasian woman, whose average is 0.05 years over her lifetime. These figures may or may not surprise you, depending on your knowledge of imprisonment in the United States. They may not even matter to you.
What the data never show us is a face. They do not give us a name. Nor do they tell us a real person's story. The very word "average" eliminates the possibility of identification.
R. Dwayne Betts is one of the statistics that make up averages like the ones above. In 1996, he was a high school student in Maryland when he and a friend, armed, decided to steal a car, its owner asleep inside, and go on a joyride in Northern Virginia, not so far from where I live. Arrested hours later, the 16-year-old, not even old enough to buy cigarettes, was charged with six felonies and within a year tried as an adult (he pleaded guilty); though he could have been "given life", he was sentenced to nine years. Some of that time he spent in isolation.
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.
~ Betts' Judge on Delivering Betts' Sentence
Betts is a statistic. What he is not is "average".
Released from prison in 2005, Betts started YoungMenRead, a book club in Bowie, Maryland, that was the subject of a prominent article in 2006 in The Washington Post. In 2009, he published a memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery Trade), and gave the commencement address at his graduation from the University of Maryland, which he attended on full scholarship. He teaches poetry now at UMd. in the College of Arts & Humanities. This year he published his second book, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books), an award-winning collection of poetry. (Betts' name in prison was "Shahid", Arabic for "witness".) He has his own Website. He expects to complete a M.F.A. in poetry from Warren Wilson College. Betts also has become a nationally known advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform; he frequently lectures and appears on law panels and at legislative and legal conferences, and is writing a nonfiction book on the effects of imprisonment. Since 2006, he has been the program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop.
The list of Betts' literary and nonliterary awards is extraordinary: 2010 Soros Justice Fellow (Open Society Foundations), 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Debut, 2009 Henrietta Spiegel Creative Writing Award (University of Maryland), Cave Canem Fellow (2006 and 2007), finalist for Ruth Lily Fellowship (2007), nominee for Pushcart Prize in poetry (2008), recipient of Bread Loaf Writers' Conference scholarship, recipient of Holden Fellowship, winner of a Beatrice Hawley Award. His poetry and essays have appeared in such prestigious literary publications as Ploughshares and Crab Orchard Review and also in national newspapers.
Last week, The Book Bench, a blog at The New Yorker, published a fascinating interview with Betts. Betts in an articulate, thoughtful, and thought-provoking interviewee. Several very brief highlights should give you reason enough to read the entire piece:
✦ On how he came to be a writer while imprisoned, Betts said, ". . . I thought being a writer was one thing you could do while you were in prison, one thing you could develop and take home with you. . . ."
✦ Literally thrown a book of poems containing work by Lucille Clifton and Robert Hayden, Betts took up poetry reading and writing in jail. ". . . It was the one thing that happened that I honestly think if it didn't happen, I wouldn't be a poet right now. . . ."
✦ Commenting on the reasons novels by Nora Roberts and similar writers are popular with inmates, Betts noted the "seduction" of narrative: ". . . [W]e were in a situation where narratives and story were far more compelling than when we were free. . . ."
✦ Of poetry, he said he tells his UMd. students, ". . . one of the reasons they write mediocre poetry is because the people in their poems only get to be perfect . . . Great poems and great books are willing to allow somebody to have flaws. . . ."
Here are two stanzas from "Winter Hunger", included in Betts' impressive 2010 poetry collection:
Your father watches the flecks add up.
He says the wind-blown dead insects
against the window conjure ghosts:
tossed dice, the South, and his regrets.
You're driving north on roads that glow
with high beams searching night. You cuss
and think about the wheel's curved bone
pressed on your palms [. . . .]
In the video below, recorded for a Library of Virginia Book Talk Series, Betts reads from and talks about his memoir, which he says is "very much about the importance of literature". (Betts appears at about the 28 minute mark, if you want to skip the initial remarks. Betts takes questions at about 50 minutes.)
My life has been built in the moments of hope.
For a collection of other YouTube videos with Betts, go here.
R. Dwayne Betts Blog
Excerpt from A Question of Freedom
R. Dwayne Betts, "From Prisoner to Poet", The Atlantic, August 2009 (Go here for a list of articles about Betts.)
Tavis Smiley Interview with R. Dwayne Betts, September 17, 2009 (Video, 23:27 minutes)
Campaign for Youth Justice (Betts is a national spokesperson for the organization.)