A Question of Freedom

images R. Dwayne Betts – “a good student from a lower-middle-class family” – carjacked a man, went to prison, and has written a book about the experience. Betts was sixteen when he committed the crime, but tried and convicted as an adult; he served eight years in Virginia prisons. He’s been out for four years now and in that time has earned a BA, founded a book club for young men (YoungMenRead), been an intern at The Atlantic, married and become a father. Betts is now a graduate student at Warren Wilson College. His book of poetry – Shahid Reads His Own Palm – won the Beatrice Hawley Award and will be out from Alice James Books in May 2010.

A Question of Freedom is getting lots of attention (from NPR to HipHopWired), and I’m very glad. Those of us on the outside – the ones making decisions about who we lock up – need every report on prison we can get from those who’ve been there. Betts’ report is that of a very young man – a teen-ager still (“Sixteen years hadn’t even done a good job on my voice,” is the book’s first sentence) – and therefore shines important light on this aspect of contemporary US incarceration practice.

What I appreciate most in A Question of Freedom are the ways Betts attempts to:

  1. understand why he was drawn to the uncharacteristic moment that brought him to prison;
  2. express the responsibility he feels, especially to his mom;
  3. speak out about all the young black men in prison with him, while at the same time working hard for a complex – rather than a simplistic – analysis of this fact;
  4. present the varieties of senselessness he encountered in prison;
  5. describe the various ways he educated himself (with some, but not much, help from prison programs or staff);
  6. claim how literature – reading and writing – shaped the man he became as he walked out of prison.

Betts is no longer a teen-ager, but he is still a very young man. A Question of Freedom is being marketed as the first work of an emerging author, and that description makes sense. The book has the virtue of rawness – conveying as it does the confusion and circuitous thinking experienced by a child locked up with adults – and some beautiful writing. Betts’ telling also bears the (probably inevitable) limitations of a young mind that has not yet developed enough scope or distance to create a coherent whole. No matter the “more” I wish from the book, A Question of Freedom is important and I’m very glad to see it building a large readership. (written by Judith Tannenbaum)

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