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Dwayne Betts on Beauty, Prison, and Redaction


Intro. [Recording date: January 5, 2023.]

Russ Roberts: Today is January 5th, 2023 and my guest is poet and lawyer, Dwayne Betts. He is the creator of the Freedom Reads Project, an initiative to install curated micro-libraries of 500 books in prisons across the country, a project we spoke about on his first appearance. This is his third appearance on EconTalk. Dwayne was last here in May of 2022 discussing Ralph Ellison and Primo Levi.

I want to encourage listeners to go to econtalk.org where you’ll find a link to our survey of your favorite episodes of last year.

Dwayne, welcome back to EconTalk.

Dwayne Betts: I know it’s always a pleasure to be here. I’m chasing Mike Munger.

Russ Roberts: You’re close. Well, with this third episode, you’re on your way. I lose track. I think Mike is in his 40s, but just a few more dozen. Couple dozen. Well, three dozen. Well, more than that.

But I would never underestimate you, Dwayne. All things are possible.


Russ Roberts: So, we have three topics today. If we get to them. We’ll see. We’re going to talk about beauty in prison, which to many would be an oxymoron. We’re going to talk about what’s happening with your library project. And then we’re going to talk about your latest book, which is quite unusual in many dimensions. That book is Redaction, is the name of it.

Let’s start with beauty. [More to come, 2:00]

Now, you recently wrote about beauty in prison in a piece in the New York Times. It opens this way”

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.

For listeners who didn’t hear your first appearance, and of course we’ll link to it, how’d you get to prison at 16 and how did that book that was slid under your door by a stranger who you’ve never known now and never met–how’d it change your life?

Dwayne Betts: One of the things I find challenging is, as you know, as you get older, some of the excuses you make for your younger self start to wane just because, like, all of a sudden you’re in contact with people who you think could be you. Right? It’s almost like you meet yourself constantly. When I was 20, that wasn’t the case because when I would meet a 16-year-old, they felt like me. Even when I was 25 and when I was 30. But, now that I’m 42 and I got a 15-year-old, that question–how did you end up in prison at 16?–is one that I find baffling. Because I realize that the answers that I thought made sense no longer make sense.

But, the short of it is that I carjacked somebody. And, it was December 7th, 1996. And then the next day we got arrested driving. Well, actually we got arrested at a mall. We were shopping with a credit card that didn’t belong to us. That’s the short answer, is that I carjacked somebody. I got caught.

One of the funny things that people don’t realize–they think that you’re just wild and you’re running the streets. The first thing I did was confess. And, it wasn’t the pressure of having police pointing pistols at me. I think it was that I was living in a place where I expected to go to college, wanted to go to college, but it was just much easier to engage in the violence that was around me than to avoid it. And, it was much easier to imagine that I could have a foothold in that world, even if just momentary, than to recognize that that thing would change the way I saw myself and the way others saw me for the rest of my life.

And so, I confessed immediately. Didn’t even know how much time I would get. I just confessed so that they would drop some of the charges. And, I stood in front of a judge, 16 years old, facing life in prison because carjacking carries life in Virginia. And, I remember sitting in my chair and my family got up–a couple people in my family, a couple family friends. They explained how I carjacked the man because I didn’t have a father. And, my mom, she didn’t get up and testify on my behalf, but she was in the room. And, I just remember thinking, ‘Man, nobody told me that not having a father doomed me from the jump.’ And so, when the judge asked me what I wanted to say, I remember saying I apologized to the victim and I apologized to my mom and to my family. And, all I know is I didn’t do it because I didn’t have a father.

But the wild thing–and this is what I’ve really gotten no further to truly being able to answer–is I didn’t provide the judge what reason why I did it. I just knew what wasn’t the rationale.

And anyway, I went to prison. And, it’s so interesting because it’s the most humbling thing in my life. I thought I was so much better than so many people, my peers, because I was getting good grades without trying. I thought they were on a path to perdition. I ended up in prison before all of them. And, it’s something that’s really humbling when you get into a place like that and you recognize that this is your community. And you got to figure out, man–you know, if you hate them, you hate yourself. And so, with some tortures[?], I think about being a 16-year old-in this God forsaken place and trying to find meaning. And, that’s why the books became so invaluable. But, yeah, that’s how it happened.

Russ Roberts: That book sliding along the floor that went under your cell door, how long had you been there before that happened? Do you remember?

Dwayne Betts: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, definitely. That’s one of those things that is unforgettable in the sense that, like, I had been reading books all of the time. We all have origin stories and I have different origin stories, too. I should say, like, one of the first ones was I got locked up when I was 16 in my 11th-grade year. When I was in the 10th grade, my history teacher caught me reading in the classroom. And, I was reading Sherlock Holmes. I had it under my desk. And, he came back and busted me. And, I thought he would take my book and yell. And, he just said something to the effect of, ‘That’s a good book.’ And so, what happens is I walk up to him afterwards and he’s reading a philosophy book and he lets me borrow it. And, I remember being deeply, deeply enthralled in this work of philosophy. He’s asking these questions like how do you know exist? And, I was captured by it. And, he let me borrow it.

And, he did two things. One, he introduced me to this book called Sophie’s World. And, it was this 1500-word book. It was this young girl who ended up meeting all the great philosophers. And, it was an intro-to-philosophy book. But, I hadn’t[?] got my hands on it. And, the second thing he did was he was trying to organize a trip to the Holocaust Museum for the whole class, but the school wouldn’t permit it. So, then he told us, ‘If you want to come in the summer, if you meet me there I can get you a private tour.’ Now this is five months before I go to prison. Before I carjacked a man. Before I get nine years in prison. That summer I go to the Holocaust Museum with this teacher. And, it’s my first experience really with understanding what the Holocaust is. But, even thinking about what it means to be Jewish as an idea, as a notion, right?

So, I get locked up and I’m trying to find a way back. And, I got this teacher that’s telling me I can help you get your high school diploma. And, essentially what my course of study became with her was: look, you have enough credits to graduate right now. All you need to do is finish 11th grade and take 12th grade English. So, I did all of my classes at the county jail and then she gave me 12th grade English. And, what 12th grade English consisted of is reading everything. I’m reading King Arthur, I’m reading Ernest Gaines, I’m reading anything that I want to read and anything that she tells me to read. And, she says, ‘What do you want to read?’ And, I said, ‘I want to read this book Sophie’s World.’ I think about this teacher and I said, ‘I want to read Sophie’s World.’

And so, she’s like, ‘Okay, I’m going to get you Sophie’s World.’ And, she comes back a week later and she says, ‘I think you’re mistaken. Because I was looking for it and I can’t find a book called Sophie’s World. I think you want to read Sophie’s Choice.’

Russ Roberts: Not the same book.

Dwayne Betts: And, you know, I’m 16, and it’s like, ‘Woe is me.’ And, then I read Sophie’s Choice and my world is blown. And, I go from Sophie’s Choice to The Confessions of Nat Turner. And so, in my own head I tell this origin story about becoming a poet, but I think the reality is even before I had became a poet, something else had to happen, which is I had to get exposed to literature that let me have some sensitivity to understanding that it’s not just woe is me. [More to come, 10:19]


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