A NewsOne Exclusive
R. Dwayne Betts was a high school junior and honor student in Maryland’s majority-Black Prince George’s County when a mere 30 minutes of poor decision-making changed the course of his life. Betts and a friend, at a mall parking lot in a nearby white suburb, carjacked a sleeping man at gunpoint, then went on a shopping spree with the victim’s money. Though he’d never been in trouble before this incident, at 16 years old Betts found himself sentenced to nine years in an adult prison.
During the years that followed, Betts’s long-time passion for literature kept him from succumbing entirely to his negative surroundings, and allowed him to emerge from prison ready to complete his education. After his release, Betts attended the University of Maryland on a full academic scholarship, and began devoting his time to non-profit work related to juvenile justice and encouraging youth interest in literature. In his new memoir, A Question of Freedom, Betts tells his story of surviving and coming of age behind bars. In an interview with NewsOne, he talks about the book, life after prison, and his thoughts on justice in America.
NewsOne: What makes an honor student steal a car?
R. Dwayne Betts: I think part of the process of writing the book was figuring out exactly that. It had more to do with my inability to navigate the violence around me in my neighborhood. It was steady exposure to violence, a steady exposure to crime. [Often] we only find out that kids weren’t equipped to deal with things around them when they make mistakes.
NO: At the time, did you think your nine-year prison sentence was fair?
RDB: Then, I was thinking less about justice and more about my own survival. [Now] I don’t necessarily think it was fair, especially because studies and statistics show that it’s easier to rehabilitate a child than an adult. I was sent into a place that’s failed to rehabilitate the adults there. It wasn’t fair in the sense that prison didn’t give me the real opportunity to succeed or change my life. That fact that I’ve done that wasn’t as a consequence of programs I found while in prison.
NO: What made you able to succeed after prison when so many other convicts don’t?
RDB: I’ve always had a passion for literature, and I went in able to read, able to write, able to think critically, and knowing that my ability to do these things could better my life. Most 16-year-olds have no idea what they’re going to do next week, while at 16 I could look and imagine what I was going to do at 21, 23. I’d read a lot of prison memoirs before, and I’m a writer. I’ve been writing poetry for years, writing essays trying to explain my situation to myself. Most people can’t do that – they’re unable to look past short-term, and it’s hard to be disciplined in a place like prison.
NO: How did you end up writing A Question Of Freedom?
RDB: I started a book club in 2007, YoungMenRead, working with boys from middle school to high school to expose them to literature. A reporter from the Washington Post wanted to do a story about the book club, and eventually learned that I’d been in prison. The story ended up the front page of the Washington Post, and I started getting contacted by publishers.
NO: So, the reporter found out that you’d been in prison without you saying so? After your release, were you open with people that you’d been convicted?
RDB: No, I didn’t say I’d been in prison, and it should be that way. Even though prison is the ultimate scarlet letter in our society, I shouldn’t have to walk around with a badge that says, “convicted felon.”
NO: What do you think of the common practice of asking about criminal backgrounds on job applications?
RDB: I believe that for most jobs there’s no reason for an employer to ask about your criminal background. People who aren’t proper candidates usually won’t be hired anyway. Of course, there should be an exception for jobs where people are working with children. But they’re asking at McDonald’s, for low-level management positions, and asking people who have proven themselves in the workforce for 10 and 15 years. For a society that claims to believe in rehabilitation and that people can change, we want to hold people accountable forever. It’s the height of hypocrisy. Even today, as many things as a I’ve done for my community and in my life, a lot of people will still judge me by my prison conviction.
NO: What’s the main focus of A Question of Freedom?
RDB: While prison is a large part of it, isn’t the only central point. Thematically, the book is a lot about literature and coming to manhood.
NO: What kind of impact do you want the book to have?
RDB: My story really isn’t that unique, but a lot of juveniles get sent to prison and people don’t know. My story can inform people about things they might be aware of.
NO: What are you working on right now?
RDB: I’m the national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, advocating for an end to sending children to prison with adults, and I’m the Program Director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop, which teaches children about the written word. Often, kids get exposed to opportunities about what their lives could’ve been like after they get in trouble. Once I went to prison, everyone wanted to take time to tell me how I ruined my life. [In the workshop] they get to see the power of the written word before they get into a situation where the written word is all they have. It’s really important for us to fund programs like this. These are the kind of programs that don’t generate millions of dollars, but save millions of lives.
Betts is currently pursuing an MFA in poetry at the Warren Wilson College, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, is slated for a May 2010 release. His first book, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is on sale now.