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The Search for Beauty in a Prison Cell

The first morning I woke up in a cell, I was 16 years old and had braces and colorful bands covering my teeth. My voice cracked when I spoke. I was 5-foot-5 ‌and barely weighed more than a sack of potatoes. Before my 18th birthday, I’d scuffle in prison cells, be counseled to stab a man (I declined) and get tossed into solitary confinement five times. And still, of those years, the memory that endures is the moment a prisoner whose name I’ve never known slid Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” under my cell door in the hole.

When I left prison eight years later, on March 4, 2005, I intended to never return. But I’ve walked into over two dozen other prisons in states from Maine to Oregon to visit friends still doing time, to see clients seeking clemency or simply to talk about something we were all interested in: books.

Once, in a prison in Trinidad, a brother asked, “Did you ever feel free in prison?” I have come to believe that beauty is a kind of freedom. And now when I return it is always, it seems, to answer a single question: Should beauty exist in prison?

Back in 2009, when I first spoke to young folks at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York, my first born was so young that I didn’t understand what it meant to be afraid for his future. When I returned to Rikers, some days ago, I knew I’d meet teenagers barely older than my now 15-year-old son — teenagers barely older than I was when handcuffs first changed my life.

At the gate, I passed through a time portal. For a second it was the winter of 1996 and my mom was weeping because I faced life in prison for carjacking. But this morning is different. I am 42 years old, returning with the wild and outlandish idea that there should be things of beauty in prison.

I was there to perform a piece of theater based on “Felon,” a collection of poems that I’d written. I’d tell them my story. Of prison, yes, but also of the years later: of my co-defendant Marcus Bullock (who, like me, had been called a “super predator”) serving as my best man when I married; of Terell Kelly, whom I helped earn parole two decades after we walked the yard of a now demolished prison in Capron, Va.; of Rojai Fentress and Kevin Williams, who I also helped get out early.

I didn’t tell them about Christopher Tunstall, another friend I helped make parole after he served 26 years in prison, who died six months after his release. I hope they understood how the beauty of a book isn’t just what it does today, but what it might allow you to do a decade from now. I wish I’d told them how it was an argument and a yellow torts book that led me to take my first legal course.

The conversations about places like Rikers are usually limited to the violence that takes place there, as if prison, like the streets we walk each day, isn’t filled mostly with people attempting to get by. People who reach for beauty in every way they can. During my time in prison, I got into a single real fight. People don’t understand how many of us sought to become more than our crimes or how many of us starved for lack of a conduit to the dignity that we sought.

About two years ago, I started Freedom Reads, an organization that builds micro-libraries of 500 books. In the more than 50 prisons where we have placed these libraries, across a half-dozen states, people look out of their cell door and see beautiful curving shelves of walnut or maple or cherry wood, filled with our greatest literature.

To choose the books, I thought back to nights I spent in a cell mesmerized by Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” or troubled by Toni Morrison’s “Paradise” or how “The Black Poets” turned me into a poet. I talked to dozens of others and listened to their memories of the books that stay with them. Of Herman Melville’s story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” one person said, “I’ve read sad stories and I’ve read a few more sad stories yet none so put-your-head-in-your-hands sad as ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’” Because I am a sometimes sad lawyer, this made me pick it up and read it again and again and then put it on our shelves.

The people I see when I arrive with the books are mirrors of myself, be they teenagers at Rikers or graying men at a Colorado prison, or the women who remind me of my mother just outside of Chicago. Some have been incarcerated all these 17 years that I have been free and many use literature to carve a place for themselves and others in this world.

Recently I walked into the Louisiana State Penitentiary with James Washington and Chris Spruill. They’d both done time in the prison they called “the Can.” James had learned to work with wood there, learned to love shaping a rough block of it into something lovely. For the last few months, he and Chris put that experience into building the three libraries we were bringing with us. When we walked into that dank place, men greeted them with dap and love. “James, what you doing back?” He was bringing beauty.

In Louisiana’s Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, an inmate named James Lavigne told us what it meant to him. “Tell you what, everybody in here reads. But usually what we end up reading is like urban novels,” he said. “This is actual literature.” On the shelf he found a Maya Angelou memoir. “I mean obviously this woman’s gone through experiences that the average person hasn’t,” he said. “She’s been through things that most of us will never understand. We’re actually able to look into her soul through her work. Amazing.” And then he moved on to Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn.” “It’s a lot of fun. I really am impressed with his style.” It’s one of my favorites, too.

We call them freedom libraries to remind us of the urgency of it all, and we carve the shelves into curves to suggest a universe that bends toward justice. I do not believe that a book alone will grant a person wings, but the hope of it all is not a fantasy. The hope is that someone will turn a page, and with the turning, transform.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer and creator of Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate libraries and install them in prisons across the country.

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