Felon: An American Washi Tale

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Alone in solitary confinement, a teenager called out to the men in the hole with him: “Somebody, send me a book!” Moments later, Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets slid under his cell door. Those pages, in that funky and desperate place, were the start of the teen’s transformation into a poet, lawyer, and promoter of the rights of prisoners. Now, 23 years after his release from prison, Reginald Dwayne Betts explores the experience and lingering consequences of having a criminal record in a solo theater show based on his poetry collection, Felon. Betts, who recently received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, advocates for literacy in prisons and is the founding director nonprofit organization Freedom Reads, which delivers books to inmates and brings contemporary writers and artists together with incarcerated audiences.

Dwayne Betts

In October 2018, the New York Times Magazine published Reginald Dwayne Betts long essay “Getting Out.” Several months later, the piece was awarded a National Magazine Award. The publication was another example of Betts entering into a new genre and bringing the same depth and richness of self-reflection and exploration of the central problem of this generation: incarceration and its effects of families and communities.

Reginald Dwayne Betts transformed himself from a sixteen-year old kid sentenced to nine-years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School. He has written three acclaimed collections of poetry, the recently published Felon, Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm.

When awarded Betts the PEN New England Award for poetry for his collection Bastards of the Reagan Era, judge Mark Doty said:

"Betts has written an indelible lament for a generation, a necessary book for this American moment."

His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.

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