Reginald Dwayne Betts was only 16 years old when he pled guilty to carjacking and was sentenced to nine years in Virginia’s prison system. Extreme isolation, constant danger, and feelings of hopelessness were pervasive while he served 14 months in solitary confinement, but he soon found a saving grace that launched him on an avenue to a brighter future: a copy of Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets. Thanks to his new reading habit, Betts reoriented his perspective, graduated from Yale Law School, and now works as a published poet, author, and lawyer. Finding reading material in prisons, however, is difficult. Most prisons only have one library, which is open for a few hours per day and requires permission to access. The easiest option is to simply not read.
Increasing access to books has become a raison d’être for Betts, who launched the nonprofit Freedom Reads in 2020 thanks to a grant from the Mellon Foundation. The first-of-its-kind organization aims to install 500-book “Freedom Libraries” in prisons across the United States. So far, Freedom Reads has built 172 of them in 30 prisons across ten states. Stocked with hand-picked titles such as A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, 1984 by George Orwell, and plenty from William Faulkner, one of Betts’s favorite authors, the libraries aim to help prisoners imagine new possibilities for themselves.
The libraries are also objects of design. Each consists of two to six freestanding bookshelves, hand-crafted from maple, walnut, or cherry. Betts insists the libraries occupy vacant cells for quicker access, and fashions each shelf at 44 inches high so as to not impede guards’ sightlines. Their curves intentionally contrast the carceral system’s rigid architecture and echo a Martin Luther King Jr. quote about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. “We’re trying to argue that you can be gentle in a place as violent and dangerous as this by having furniture that we make with our hands,” Betts says. “To say that this group of folks in prison—for whatever they’re in prison for—deserve this, is compelling.” Talk about a success story.