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Reginald Dwayne Betts On Incarceration, Chauvin Verdict — And Poetry

Twenty-five years ago, Reginald Dwayne Betts saw his entire life trajectory change in the space of 30 minutes. In what he has since described as “a moment of insanity,” Betts, then a 16-year-old high school junior, carjacked a man. He would serve eight years in prison for the crime.

“Somewhere between pulling out a pistol that fit nicely in the palm of my hand, tapping lightly on the window of a forest green Grand Prix and waking the sleeping middle-aged white man with the muzzle of the burner, I committed six felonies,” Betts writes in his 2009 memoir, “A Question of Freedom.”

“I’d never held a gun before and was an honor student who could almost remember every time the police had spoken to me,” Betts adds, “but I knew none of that mattered as my face pressed against the window of the cruiser.”

Betts Dwayne (c) Mamadi Doumbouya.jpg
In his work as a writer, lawyer and advocate, Reginald Dwayne Betts frequently draws attention to the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

Before that, he’d dreamed of going to college. But looking back now, Betts views that possible path as further out of reach than he could have realized growing up.

“Back then I imagined I was a better child than some of my friends, and I imagined my future looked brighter than them,” Betts said Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. “And my real failing was not recognizing that, being in community, our fates were all tied, and not working to make all of our collective fate better.”

Sentenced in Virginia, Betts was treated as an adult and spent the vast majority of his incarceration among them despite his youth.

“There are no children in prison,” he said. “And what I mean is [that] when you live in a society that sends 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds to prison, the society just acknowledges that you’re no longer to be cared for, and you truly have to figure it out on your own. … Once they put handcuffs on you, once you commit a crime that prosecutors, defense attorneys, your relatives, everybody says makes you disposable, you no longer get to be a child.”

But Betts was quick to add that some men in prison do recognize vulnerability and attempt to protect it.

“In a lot of ways, I was locked up with men who cared far more about me than the judge, the prosecutor, these elected officials who passed the laws that would lead a prosecutor to feel like it was his only choice to send me to prison, that would lead a judge to stand on the bench and judge over me and act as if the possibility of a life sentence for the crime I committed was somehow justice, and they all did that,” he said.

“So I think it’s important for me to point out that it was men in prison who showed me far more humanity than the system that sent me to prison. And it was men in prison who expected me to go to college, who expected me to be a lawyer, to be a writer, in ways that folks on the outside didn’t.”

'There Are No Children In Prison': Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts On His Teenaged Incarceration
Listen as Betts talks with host Sarah Fenske about his journey, reads a poem and shares his insights on some of the biggest challenges of our time.

Betts sought solace in books and served as a GED tutor while in prison. And by the time he left at age 24, he had already sent poems out into the world to be published. It was part of his way of staying engaged with the outside world.

“We imagine people inside as being a world apart, and I think that’s really, really dangerous,” he said.

Since his release in 2005, Betts has found brighter horizons. These days, he’s an acclaimed poet, a lawyer and the founder and director of his alma mater Yale Law School’s Million Book Project, which supports prison libraries across the United States.

And each week, he highlights a fellow poet’s work in a column in the New York Times Magazine.

In conversation with host Sarah Fenske, Betts read one of his own poems, “Essay on Reentry,” and shared what makes a good poem stand out to him.

“We have this notion that we can only communicate with each other and empathize with each other if we have shared experience,” he said. “But I think a poem that’s worth reading is one that makes you hear something, an experience that feels completely foreign, and yet feels close to your heart.”

Betts continues to advocate for criminal justice reform and juvenile justice. He joined the talk show in advance of a virtual presentation Thursday evening with the St. Louis-based organization Women's Voices Raised for Social Justice.

On air, he touched on this week’s guilty verdict in the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“He’s going to do less time than I did for robbery,” Betts said. “It’s not that we live in a country that’s too punitive; it’s that we live in a country that’s too punitive when certain people commit crime.”

He also commented on the idea of accountability, a term much tossed around in the wake of the Chauvin verdict.

“[Accountability] is not what you get from prison, by and large, and it’s certainly not what you get just fundamentally based on a guilty verdict,” he explained. “And so if you say what happened yesterday was accountability, you’re suggesting that accountability is a guilty verdict, which you know leads to prison, and then it sounds like accountability is prison. And I fundamentally disagree.”

He added: “You have a lot of guilty verdicts that lead to prison that shouldn't lead to prison. You have a lot of guilty verdicts that are suspect. And so I think that we really actually need to ask people in Minnesota, what is accountability? When you have the prosecution pushing a case and it’s pushing a case against an institution, maybe they should be asking Mr. Floyd’s family what accountability is, what does it mean to repair that harm that’s been done by this police force. … Accountability should make us feel like we’re safe, and I don’t know if folks would agree with that.”

Related Event
What: Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice Presents “Visionary Voices: Reginald Dwayne Betts — From Jail To Yale”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Virtual event (free and open to the public, but registration is required)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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