Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Question of Freedom

At the age of 16, Dwayne Betts held a gun in his hands for the first time and carjacked a man with a friend. He was charged as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison - all for $10 and two hours of joyriding. By the age of 18, Dwayne was shuffled between three prisons, serving time in the adult population as a juvenile in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia.

While in prison, Dwayne experienced many firsts: The first time he read a book cover to cover without stopping. The first time he had conversations talking to grown men. The first time he sat with men his father’s age and talked about life. The first time he was given a book of poetry, The Black Poets, by Dudley Randall. It was in prison that he decided to become a poet. In his new and profound memoir being released tomorrow, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age In Prison, he shares, “I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets.”

During his sentencing, as he stood in the courtroom, he was told by the judge, “I don’t have any illusion that the penitentiary is going to help you, but you can get something out of it if you want to.” That he did. Today, Dwayne is an accomplished and award winning poet, author, the founder of Young Men Read, a book club for young boys, as well as a vital and influential juvenile justice activist.

In A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Survival, Learning, and Coming of Age In Prison, Dwayne uses vivid detail and imagery to describe the violence that surrounded him daily, his fellow inmates that he met during his time in prison and their struggles, the correctional officers who knew him as nothing but a statistic and at times treated him as such. Throughout the book, Dwayne details long periods of time spent in solitary confinement and how those times helped to propel his love of reading. While in prison, Dwayne read countless books, wrote poetry, taught himself Spanish, and worked as a librarian, law clerk and a GED tutor.

Dwayne beat the odds. Statistics show that African American juvenile offenders have a higher recidivism rate (meaning that they are more likely to return to prison after release) than their white juvenile counterparts. So his path after prison may not be typical of your ex offender. But he shares, “I'm wary of saying what is and isn't the typical course for ex offenders - I'd say that a major difference in my journey was both the access to opportunities (working at Karibu [Bookstore] and being a student at Prince George's Community College) and a diligence on my part while I was in prison to prepare for opportunities. Also, I went into prison having been an honor student, having already understood the importance of literature and was able to envision a future for myself beyond prison walls because of those things. Then, of course, I was unbelievably blessed and fortunate not to be permanently scarred by prison.”

Dwayne took the time to e-chat with me about his advocacy efforts, what he wants young boys and others to get out of his book, and how programs can use his book in working with youth. (Also read on to win a free copy!)

In your role as spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice and as an influential juvenile justice advocate, what are the current issues for youth, particularly African American youth, and their involvement in the juvenile justice system? What is being done to address these issues?
“My primary concern, and what I believe all of us should be thinking hard on, is how to change the disproportionate number of kids of color in the system. Juvenile prosecution as adults is something we have to address - and more importantly we have to figure out a way to get the juvenile justice system not be a major part in the lives of so many young people - which means we need better, more effective models of prevention and rehabilitation.”

For a young black boy reading your book, what do you want him to take away from it?
“I want my book to start a conversation, a hundred conversations. Not just for young black boys, or boys in general, but for anyone who is willing to open up to the idea of the pleasure in a good book. Especially, for people who are looking for ways to enter into difficult conversations about race, incarceration, the importance of education and why so many people are being ruined by prison cells. My book is the start of a long conversation that can change a life.”

How can youth serving organizations use your book in program activities with young males?
“In my book I bring up a myriad of issues, I mention a number of writers, a number of story lines that made up my life. Anyone can take this and create a reading list, they can use the reading guide that has been developed for this book, and they can move to in depth conversations. Right now, the book is being used as the starting point for an essay contest.

Dwayne emphasizes that his book is not just for youth, but for everyone: "This is not just a book targeted at young people and it's important that I emphasize that this is not just about young people. This is about good literature and how good literature is enjoyable just because it is good literature and how good literature broadens the minds. If adults don't open up this book and read it and talk about it with their young people, the book cannot be as effective or powerful as I hope. It was never just the reading of books that changed my life and perspective, but the reading of books and having intelligent conversations around them. I hope my book inspires that.”

In addition to Dwayne’s advocacy work, he teaches inner city youth at the DC Creative Writing Workshop in Washington, D.C. A graduate of Prince George’s Community College in Maryland (his hometown) and the University of Maryland, he has been awarded the Holden Fellowship from Warren Wilson College, and his book of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm will be published in May 2010.

If you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, Dwayne will be hosting a book signing at Bus Boys & Poets, 2021 14th Street, NW, D.C., August 10th at 6pm. Upcoming book signing cities include Atlanta; Oak Park, IL; Asheville, NC; and Richmond, VA. Visit his website at for more cities and information.

If you would like to win a copy of Dwayne’s book, send an email to blackgivesback[at] with “book giveaway” in the subject line. The deadline to enter is TODAY!

{Special thanks to Kadeem and Lindsay at the Penguin Group for the complimentary books!}

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