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)

Letters and Poetry

My name is Kathleen Marie Donovan and I currently exchange letters and creative writing with prisoners serving long sentences in my home state of Florida. It was, initially, my prime service to my community, but as I go along, I find that the impact of this exchange is farther reaching: my writers and I are interacting in a fundamental way where all sources of differentiation cease and we are human beings expressing and empathizing with shared emotions, learning new things about each other and ourselves, understanding that the pieces that we put on paper are important and appreciated…sometimes, for the first time in our lives. And we are changed.

I fell into this way very by accident, after being interrupted while reading the international newspapers by a “Find Your Classmates” pop-up ad, 26AUG07. Ever the skeptic, and welcoming a break from dire unrest in the EU and economic turmoil worldwide, I typed in a couple names of former classmates, expecting nothing at all to happen and nothing did. So I tried another search engine, anticipating another negative result, and instead found a former classmate’s name strewn across the page in several legal documentation links referencing the Florida Department of Corrections,. The initial search had failed because the engine was searching the homogeneous suburban background of perfect attendance records and straight teeth, not where I had grown up amongst Miami’s cyclone-fenced Marielitos (or, as Fidel Castro most poignantly termed these Cuban immigrants wishing to join their prosperous, now-American family members, “Los Gusanos,” or “The Worms”) and Carol City survivors.

The two classmates I found were ones who helped me, a relatively well behaved girl with a penchant for truancy, negotiate the hallways, bathrooms and classrooms of an alternative junior high “opportunity” school where the most commendable student in attendance had been sent for pushing his pregnant teacher down a flight of stairs. Here were, I’ve only recently come to know via letters and poetry, kids who were willing victims of sexual abuse simply for the attention; kids who hustled and covered for alcoholic parents for whom they amounted to only the value of an extra allotment of food stamps. So these children are serving lifetime sentences now, not surprisingly.

I write to change our lives: person by person, poem by poem. I’ve recently applied to graduate school as a Master of Fine Arts/Poetry candidate after years of indecision about whether to pursue a more lucrative Master of Business Administration degree in which I have no interest although, God knows, I’ve tried. I intend to bring writing to those who would, otherwise, be marginalized in society, those considered as having nothing of value to impart — at-risk youth, prisoners, the aged, illiterate. My hope is to share writing as a way of understanding self worth and adding creative expression to the world. I hope that writing will change others’ lives as it has changed mine.For writing offered me a safe haven and self esteem when I was left to my own device by people who, I’m sure, cared, but didn’t know what to do, or didn’t have the resources to do it.

All of us only have any of us to rely on. I’ve learned this on my protracted journey toward adulthood, and I will make this learning my primary contribution to the peers of my past and the people we’ve become.

If These Walls Could Talk

If These Walls Could Talk

If These Walls Could Talk is based on testimonial writings by the youngest members of America’s prison system.

While in Juvenile Hall, detained and incarcerated youth are invited to participate in weekly writing workshops led by The Beat Within which has been publishing and distributing their art, essays and poems throughout the national juvenile justice system since 1996. The workshops inspire these young writers to dig deep, and seek meaningful insights through thought-provoking topics, and personalized feedback to each and every participant.

Youth Speaks poets worked with The Beat Within to record the poems written by incarcerated youth, which are now available for listening at http://ifthesewallscouldtalk.org/

Calls From Home

The Thousand Kites Project has produced the 9th Annual Calls From Home holiday radio broadcast for prisoners and their families. Listen to a sample of the show here: calls from home

Thousand Kites is excited to offer community radio stations and individuals the 9th annual national radio program Calls from Home. The program features phone calls from mothers and children, brothers and grandparents, sharing the intimate power of families speaking directly to their incarcerated loved ones. Poets and musicians read and sing across phone lines and prison walls. Calls from Home, produced in the coalfields of central Appalachia, reaches a national network of prisoners, their loved ones and public listeners through community radio in an effort to educate the public about the criminal justice system. Started in 1998 by artists at Appalshop, the program was first a local response to the growing prison industry in their rural community.

Want to help get Calls From Home heard all over the country?

Here’s what you can do:
• Host a community meeting or, if you can, play it for a group of prisoners using the CALLS FROM HOME short program and facilitation guide.
• Download a copy of CALLS FROM HOME for your local community radio station and suggest that they broadcast the program.
• Blog about CALLS FROM HOME. Embed the audio, banners, and text from this page. Write a short commentary. Email us a link to your blog and your mailing address and we will send you a free copy of our award-winning documentary UP THE RIDGE. (offer for the first 50 bloggers to contact us)

Join the discussion! Comment on the program here.

Visit http://www.thousandkites.org for more information on the program!