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Essay

From Prison to Law School, Reginald Dwayne Betts Shares His Story

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and author. He spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 27th on a panel called “The Politics of Poetry: The Intersection of Art and Activism. Below, Betts shares his journey from prison to law school, and his mission to work with those out of prison.

My father is the only person that I know without a college degree to use the word discursive. If I were a novelist and sketching the portrait of a complicated black man, there would be this detail. When I heard him say it we were drinking Hennessy. I’d brought it over to his apartment and he and I, two black men, a father and a son, were communing. I get discursive sometimes was his way of saying that the point of the words ain’t always coming at you easy. This is how you talk when you sit with your son who you did not raise, when you and that son have known what the inside of a prison cell smells like, what the clink of cuffs around wrists feel like. He tells me that he gets discursive and he means that the things we must say to each other are burdened with digressions, with all the past that threatens to silence us. We come from a long line of black men who have, at times, avoided the truth because it, sometimes, seems to augur another hand wrapped around the neck of another and it is never clear if we are the one doing the choking or being choked.

Our plan is a simple one: to explode the silence with our voices and the voices of other men and women who have survived prison and returned home to struggle and strive for fulfilling lives.

Coming to the Aspen Ideas Festival is, in many ways, a circling back to that conversation. I come here with Marcus Bullock. We have been friends for two decades. I was the best man at his wedding, he was the best man at mine. My sons call him uncle; his son calls me uncle. His daughter, just months old, will call me uncle when she begins to speak. If you meet us now, you will see that we are friends. Black men with families. A writer and an entrepreneur. But we are born from the silences I share with my father. Two decades ago the name for us was co-defendants. We were teenagers, incarcerated in Virginia, facing life in prison after having plead guilty to carjacking. Guilt is a burden. It changes how you see the world, how you see yourself. Guilt changed us is what I tell people. The rock bottom and collection of black men that is prison forced us to imagine something different for ourselves and scrape for that thing as if that was all that matters.

And so we are here. And as finalists for this year’s Aspen Ideas Award, for at least four minutes we will talk about an idea that has driven our work long before we articulated it. How do you make prison less of a silo? Frequently, the men and women inside feel disappeared — as if society has abandoned them. We felt that way. And now, when we visit prisons, one of the recurring themes is surprise. Surprise that we would willingly return to prison given our successes.

Our plan is a simple one, really: to explode the silence with our voices and the voices of other men and women who have survived prison and returned home to struggle and strive for fulfilling lives. When we return, Marcus will use his experience in business, discuss what it means to have created Flikshop, a mobile app that helps families stay in contact with their loved ones in prison, and the Flikshop School of Business, a reentry program that focuses on entrepreneurship. I will talk about writing, about how I went from a teenager scribbling poems in a cell in solitary confinement to the author of “Bastards of the Reagan Era.” I will talk about first learning about the law by taking a paralegal course in prison to later studying at Yale Law School.

Criminal Justice Reform has been a dominant issue over the past few years. This is evidenced by the focus here at the Aspen Ideas Festival. The program here features a number of exceptional attorneys, advocates, and leaders. For an hour, I will talk with Marsha Levick, Laurence Steinberg, and Alissa Figueroa about Kids in the System. The questions we will be wrestling with: What should be the juvenile justice system’s goals? What are its most egregious failings? Where does it currently show the best results? How could it be better, and what are the most promising new ideas and strategies for working more fairly and productively with young people who break the law?

Sometimes I’m certain that the silences my father and I share are ultimately about the ways his absence might have made answering these questions that much more difficult. And I know that these are the questions that formed the architecture of an adolescent behind bars. My childhood, Marcus’s. And while there are no easy answers, our having made it here suggests that there is far more hope than usually admitted to.

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