Reginald Dwayne Betts, a poet, playwright and performer, is Reginald Dwayne Betts. He is also an attorney. Betts says that the term "over-achiever", which is what comes to mind when Betts thinks of him, is actually the result of another word: felon.
Correspondent Erin Moriarty stated, "I don't know you for that long but I can't believe the person I know would find himself in a shopping center carjacking someone."
Betts said, "Yeah. I know." It's almost like a black Swan event in my life. It was unimaginable, and it wasn't possible to have anticipated what would happen.
Betts, an honors student at Maryland University, was 16 when he and a group robbed a car. He can't explain the incident twenty-five years later. I don't remember his name, but the man who gave me that gun didn't even know it then. It's one of those situations where I would not believe it was true if it weren't true.
"Everything that I know about home is captured in this image of a boy running away from the police, with his arms flailing unlike any you'd expect to fly From "Felon: An American Washi Tale", a solo theatre piece by Dwayne Bets
Betts had no criminal record and the victims weren't physically hurt. He was tried as an adult and spent nearly nine years in prison. The worst thing about it all is being sixteen and telling your mom you're in prison, then having to tell them that you did it. This is why I started to figure out my future career. And I had planned to be an engineer. But, I thought to myself, after nine years in prison, I will only have paper and an ink pen.
"I'm going to be a writer."
He was sent to solitary after a fight, and other inmates gave him books. In a one-man play he wrote, he describes the moment.
They had built a type of underground library. Hey, yo! Send me a book! It came! It was a kind of magic. "The Black Poets" by Dudley Randall.
This was how he discovered poetry. "I'm in a hole, it is summertime in Virginia. It's hot. I'm meeting Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. Robert Hayden, Amiri baraka.
Moriarty asked: "Am I correct that poetry gave me a way of telling stories?"
It gave me structure. It gave me a vision. It gave me the ability to visualize and articulate something I had in my head in a very short time.
Betts was only 24 when he was released. His 2009 book "A Question of Freedom", which was his first, was a memoir of life in prison. The author of three books of poetry, "A Question Of Freedom", followed. One was called "Felon", the simple word that prison inmates use to describe themselves long after they are released.
He stated, "If your sentence is time in prison, you will become used to people telling you what you can and can't do. You cannot rent this apartment because of a felony conviction. A felony conviction means you can't work for me. A felony conviction means you can't go to my school.
Betts was still able to attend Prince George's Community College. He was offered a job in a bookstore and he met Terese Robertson, a classmate. Betts told her on their second date that he had something difficult to share with her. Terese stated that Betts told her that he had just been released from prison a few months before. It took me a bit by surprise. It didn't change my view of him.
"You didn’t think twice about a second date?" asked Moriarty.
"No. "Actually, I didn't!" She replied. He is so gentle and kind. He does come off as a bit of a nerd to me, but it's not my fault!
Betts described them to be "like safety blankets for one another, in a certain way."
They were married and supported one another through school. Dwayne earned a master's degree, and then went to Yale law school. He said, "At some point I decided that it was not possible for me to escape prison." It's a sort of gravity that has an effect on my life. It could also be the lens through the which I see the world. My life was made better when I realized that I cannot run away from this fact.
Betts' past has given him something more, something valuable, even admirable: a mission. Freedom Reads is a non-profit that builds mobile libraries for prison housing units. What does it mean to put a library in a housing unit so that when they look out of their cells, they don't see the frustration and desperation but also another bit of monotony? He said.
Betts has considered every aspect of the library, including the books and the reclaimed wood. "You are watching your friend go there and grab books. You're now like, "What were you reading?" You're now asking yourself, "What was that you were reading?". The other conversation will definitely have light.
Dwayne Betts views his life as an argument in favor of second chances. He is surrounded with paper kites made from prisoner clothing at a recent rehearsal of his show, which he performs in prisons. Betts was one of the inmates who Betts served time with and helped him get parole. "How is it possible for me to forget the people I shared puberty with?" With whom I spent my 20s? People who wrote me letters while I was in college People who would read my book and say, "Shahid, we got our book ."
Terese hopes Dwayne's determination, despite his past history, will set an example for their sons Micah, 14, and Miles, 10, respectively. Terese stated, "I think it's one thing that I love about Dwayne, just because he can demonstrate to our children the tenacity and to always have that drive, persevere." Although life is difficult for many people, you can still become the person you desire to be, despite the difficulties.
Betts received a mysterious call in the fall from a stranger. It informed him that he had won a MacArthur fellowship, which comes with a $625,000 grant.
Micah, his son, stated that it didn't go to his head. It wasn't like he suddenly realized, "Oh, I'm genius now." He knew it!
Reginald Dwayne Betts claims that the fellowship speaks volumes about the people around him.
He said that he loved the MacArthur piece, but more than affirming his healthy ego, he added, "I think it affirms my faith that a lot people had in me when I was being rejected by everyone else."
"Terese must know that it was important when we first met 20 years ago. I did all this to show you that I loved you.
Kay Lim produced the story. Editor: George Pozderec.