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Reginald Dwayne Betts

Author of A Question of Freedom, PEN New England Award winner, and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice

  • About Reginald Dwayne Betts

    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 two collections of poetry, the recently published and critically acclaimed Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm. In 2016 he was awarded the PEN New England Award for poetry for Bastards of the Reagan Era. In selecting Bett’s poetry, 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.

    The national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society. A powerful and inspirational speaker, Betts is an important voice and advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform. Betts’ own experiences as a teenager in maximum security prisons uniquely position him to speak to the failures of the current criminal justice system and present encouraging ideas for change. Betts’ advocacy work led President Barack Obama to appoint him to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

    His writing has generated national attention and earned him a Soros Justice Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Ruth Lily Fellowship, an NAACP Image Award, and most recently, a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship for his poetry. Betts has been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the Washington Post, as well as being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Travis Smiley Show and several other national shows. He has spoken or appeared on panels at Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, Georgetown Law School, the University of Maryland and colleges across the country. He has also been a featured speaker at numerous conferences, including the Beyond the Bench conference, the NACo legislative conference, and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice annual conference.

    In the spring of 2016 Betts graduated from Yale Law School. He has also received an A.A. from Prince George’s Community College, a B.A. from the University of Maryland, and a M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers. He lives with his wife and two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

  • Speaking Topics

    A Question of Freedom: Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison

    In this lecture, Reginald Dwayne Betts chronicles the years he spent in prison, reflecting on his crime and sharing how his experiences and the books he discovered while incarcerated ultimately came to define him. It is an inspirational tale of transformation that speaks to the power of language and examines the important intersection of art and social justice.

    The Circumference of a Prison: Youth, Race, and the Failures of the American Justice System

    Reginald Dwayne Betts knows the hazards of juvenile incarceration firsthand. Arrested at age sixteen, Betts served eight years in an adult prison, coming of age behind bars. Today, Betts uses his experiences to speak about the current state of the criminal justice system—including, sentencing juveniles as adults, solitary confinement, maximum security prisons, the collateral consequences of a criminal record—and presents promising ideas for reform.

    An Evening of Poetry with Reginald Dwayne Betts

    An award-winning poet, Reginald Dwayne Betts will read from his two critically-acclaimed collections of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm and Bastards of the Reagan Era, and discuss the inspiration behind his works.

  • Video

  • Praise for Reginald Dwayne Betts


    You’re very lucky to represent Dwayne’s speaking engagements. I invite amazing authors to come and speak all the time and to have one with the speaking talents Dwayne has is rare. He really moved a lot of people.

    Normandale Community College

    Dwayne was wonderful. We had a great conversation in the morning and he not only took the information I gave him but also read through our program guide and tailored his speech to our audience. It was perfect. He was engaging, though provoking, and most of all, humble. I am so glad that he spoke at our event.

    National Youth Leadership Council

    Praise for Shahid Reads His Own Palm

    Betts doesn't just have a powerful story to tell. He is a true poet who can write a ghazal that sings, howls, rhymes, and resonates in memory years after it was first read.

    Jericho Brown, On the Seawall

    There's an authority in Betts's voice that carries us, and his voice is governed by boldness and consonance.

    Devil's Lake

    ...these poems in turn sear and moan, are impossibly restless and at times starkly silent.

    American Poet

    Praise for Bastards of the Reagan Era

    Dwayne Betts describes my field, criminal law, as 'the business of human tragedy.' He's right. In Bastards of the Reagan Era, Betts does a remarkable job of describing the precise shape of that tragedy. It comes at the right moment, too, as many Americans are straining to see something beyond 'guilty' and 'prisoner' when they look at criminal law. Betts is a great poet, and a witness to truths that have for too long been shrouded in media fables and easy politics.

    Mark Osler

    The redemption [Betts] has found in wrestling, fearlessly, with the destructive decisions . . . of his generation’s trials is mesmerizing and beautiful in the language and rhythms of his pen.

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

    Fierce, lyrical and unsparing, the poems in Bastards of the Reagan Era is a haunting and harrowing book that addresses, through the power of poetry, the trials of coming of age during an era in which unarmed black men and boys are dying at the hands of police officers, and millions are incarcerated by a justice system that turns people into statistics and warps their lives and hopes.

    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

    Praise for A Question of Freedom

    This book is a lesson on living. How does one become a man after being in a cell? A Question of Freedom is not a book of answers. Instead, this memoir is a minder that a black boy can turn his world around. Betts shows us that words are key. This book will unlock your compassion.

    E. Ethelbert Miller, Director of the African American Resource Center, Howard University


    Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

    A Question of Freedom is a must-read and should be required reading for all those young sons and grandsons and brothers and nephews and uncles who believe this can't happen to them; it can, even if they can't wrap their brains around such a concept.

    The Baltimore Times
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