From Prisoner to Poet

Sentenced to nine years in prison at the age of sixteen for carjacking, R. Dwayne Betts discovered something unexpected while relegated to solitary confinement for assaulting a guard: a love of literature.

r. dwayne betts

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.

With Roger across from me, we could fish. I’d attach a boot to my line and toss it halfway into the space that separated our two buildings and he’d snag it with his line. Once the lines were connected you could see a tightrope linking our two cells and you could see the pillowcase going back and forth as I sent him food and whatever else he needed. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have much in the hole, so fishing was the way we supplemented and the way the segregated units and the population communicated. We could yell to each other, but that got old when you competed with seven other conversations. But our fishing didn’t last long. One afternoon Born and I were coming from church with Jackson when the Italian guard told me to go to my cell. Now. In the time it took me to turn around, she was writing a charge.

It shouldn’t have mattered, one charge that I would have likely beaten, but I was young and stuck on principles. I was set on going to the prison’s field event. If you stayed away from trouble for a year, your family could come and walk around the prison rec yard with you for a few hours. I was especially looking forward to it because I’d heard you could have sex with someone if you were sneaky, so I was laying my plans out. While I had no one who would come up to a prison to have sex with me, I was mad that the CO was writing a charge for something so petty and ruining my chances. I tried to talk her out of the charge but couldn’t. Next thing I know she was trying to slam my door in my face, but I wouldn’t let her close me in the cell. The disobeying a direct order charge became an assault charge when she said I hit her with the door. Off I went to the hole with a ninety- day sentence.

People went crazy in the hole. There was no air-conditioning in the summer, so I would strip down to my boxer shorts and pour water on the bare mattress and then lie in it and wake up dry but covered with mosquito bites. There really was nothing else to do about the heat, just endure it or lie in water. The library cart didn’t come around but there were plenty of people down there you could get a book from. Just like in population, inmates we called housemen cleaned up and helped pass out the food. I didn’t notice them much when I was in population, but they were almost our lifelines in the hole. If not for them and fishing we wouldn’t have been able to pass food, books, notes. All the stuff you needed. The housemen were in population, so they could bring word back and forth to keep that communication flowing.

I was back there on my first real charge, and honestly, I felt better in the hole; it was calm. There wasn’t the pressure you feel when in population, the constant tension in the air. You disgraced yourself by “checking in”— asking to be placed in the hole for protective custody. So I’d never thought of going to the hole as a way of being able to relax. The crazy thing is, you’re supposed to be safe in prison; instead, prisoners who are unwilling or unable to fight require special arrangements: checking in. I wasn’t in the hole for protection, but I wasn’t complaining about having a few months where all I had to worry about was what book I’d read next. In population, there were too many young dudes running around shackled to too much time and for sanity’s sake my time in the hole did me good.

In the hole, once I realized I could just call out on the door for books, I was reading a book a night. Reading more and getting some time to write my thoughts out, to process what people I walked the yard with said to me …

After I finished the first ninety-day stint, they gave me another… For my birthday I was in a cell that I only left for showers every three days and rec twice a week. For people in segregation and solitary confinement rec was in a cage that looked like a man-sized dog kennel. They put two of us in each cage and sometimes fights would break out. The cage locked so there was no escaping and fists would just be thrown as the rest of us oohed and aahed.

It made us into animals, so I stopped going outside. The only time I left the cell was for showers. Two days after my birthday, I was on the door yelling for a book when someone threw The Black Poets by Dudley Randall under my cell door. James Baldwin said that people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them. The poets in Randall’s book were telling the history in shades of gray, telling the stories I never found in schoolbooks. Everybody has a book they say has changed their life— a book that made them more than they were before they picked it up. There was something within the pages of that tiny poetry anthology that moved me.

Reprinted from A Question of Freedom by R. Dwayne Betts by arrangement with Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2009 by R. Dwayne Betts.