Following his release from prison in 2005, R. Dwayne Betts enrolled in college and founded a book club for young men called YoungMenRead. In the summer of 2007, he interned at The Atlantic, and is now a graduate student at Warren Wilson College, where he has been awarded the Holden Fellowship. His book of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, will be published in May 2010.
In this passage from his new memoir, A Question of Freedom, published this week, R. Dwayne Betts describes the incongruous events leading up to his discovery of an anthology of poems that would give his life new direction.
One morning my cell-mate Roger was walking to the cafeteria wearing his do-rag, the leg of a pair of long johns tied with a knot at the top. When he walked into the cafeteria a Corrections Officer called out, “Let me have that contraband.” Everyone around knew it was some bullshit, but Roger tossed his rag to the CO. The white man caught the hat, then called in other COs and said Roger threw the hat at him. Suddenly, tossing a hat had become an assault charge, a 105 in their rulebook, and they gave Roger ninety days in segregation.
The segregation cell was in the building parallel to my cell. And lucky for Roger, he’d been put in a cell roughly across from mine. Anybody locked up for more than a few months on the Farm knew how to fish. This is when you made a line from the sheets you slept on and added some sort of hook. The hook could be a shampoo bottle full of water, a boot or a fingernail clipper. It depended on where you were sending your line. If it was going inside the building it would be a fingernail clipper or a bar of soap, but if it was going to another building it would be something heavier. Fishing was how we got stuff to each other when we were locked in the cell. At night, you could see lines drifting from the top tiers to cells on the bottom and then you’d see a laundry bag containing Black and Milds, soups or whatever the fisherman was angling for. Sometimes the bag just held a note.