Courtesy of YLS

Reginald Dwayne Betts, legal scholar, writer, and education and prison reform advocate, aims to build 1,000 libraries in prisons across the country. Now, he will put copies of his own book — on the craft and significance of writing — in these very libraries. 

Betts, a doctoral candidate, has become a Yale law graduate, nationally acclaimed writer and a National Magazine Award winner. He started his writing career while serving a nine-year prison sentence. Betts recently collaborated with PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting and celebrating freedom of expression in America, to release a writing guide for people in prisons titled “The Sentences That Create Us.” 

“I read similar books when I was inside and those books always helped me think about what it meant to be a writer and the process of actually putting pen to paper and going one letter to the next,” Betts told the News. “What’s interesting about this book is it’s both for craft [and], it’s also an exploration of what it means to do that particular job, what [it means] to write an essay.”

Betts said the book will help people in prisons explore the craft and significance of writing, but would also be helpful to those outside of prison.

Since the book’s release last month, more than 75,000 free copies of the book are being distributed in prisons, and 18,000 people have requested to read it. But Betts emphasized that this book should only be one aspect of the repertoire of books that helps one craft a “writing life”. 

Still, he said, the book is important in helping people in prisons know that writers have written both inside prison and after they have gotten out.

Since 2009, in his own writing life, Betts has released six books.

“The first version of my writing life has been in terms of ‘what does it mean to build community as a writer?’” Betts said. “So the first thing I did was teach poetry in local schools. But while doing that I was going to workshops. That somehow allowed me to build community in a different way.”

Betts went on to attend Warren Wilson College for creative writing, where he said he continued to build community.

He then matriculated to Yale Law School, where he got his juris doctor. His work as a writer intersects with his law and advocacy work.

“It’s all part of the same package,” Betts said. “It overlaps. When you write you try to educate somebody about something. But also, you try to create a world. And a lot of the worlds I write about are worlds while in prison. Obviously, the advocacy work I do revolves around literature and freedom and books, and your medium is the word, just like it is as a writer.”

Originally from Maryland, Betts was arrested at age 16. He was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison. After being released, he would go on to serve on former President Barack Obama’s Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2012. He moved to New Haven and has served as a member of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission since 2018. Betts is currently working towards a doctorate at Yale Law School. While writing and studying at Yale, the years he spent in prison are central influences on his writing and advocacy.

“Some things you can’t run away from,” Betts said. “There are some things you really can’t get away from. It’s just such a part of life that I’ve lived.”

Betts says that he got into law and prison advocacy by coincidence. He worked in a legal library with the hopes of learning how to type so he could type his poems up. His first published piece in prison was about juveniles being tried as adults. When he got out of prison, he started speaking at events and thinking about the problem of mass incarceration. Those experiences taught him that “the law can be used as a way to freedom.”

Yet he notes that his success can’t be purely attributed to skill, but also to an element of luck.

“I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves,” Betts said. “If I were to put a percentage to it, it might be 95 percent skill and 5 percent luck. But without that 5 percent, I might not be where I am.”

Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Grant,” for $625,000 in September 2021, which helps the recipient explore their potential.

DANTE MOTLEY
Dante Motley covers Black communities at Yale and in New Haven. He is also an Associate Editor for the YDN Magazine and works on "The Yalie" podcast. He is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in anthropology.