Reginald Dwayne Betts

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Betts in 2019
Betts in 2019
BornMaryland, U.S.
  • Poet
  • teacher
  • lawyer
EducationPrince George's Community College
University of Maryland, College Park (BA)
Warren Wilson College (MA)
Yale University (JD, PhD candidate)
Notable awardsGuggenheim Fellowship (2018)
MacArthur Fellowship (2021)
SpouseTerese Robertson Betts

Reginald Dwayne Betts is an American poet, legal scholar, educator and prison reform advocate. At age 16 he committed an armed carjacking, was prosecuted as an adult, and sentenced to nine years in prison. He started reading and writing poetry during his incarceration. "A single book, Dudley Randall's The Black Poets, slid under my cell in the hole, introduced me to the poets that had me believing words can be carved into a kind of freedom.” [1] After his release, Betts earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College, and a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School.[2] He served on President Barack Obama’s Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.[3] He founded Freedom Reads, an organization that gives incarcerated people access to books.[4] In September 2021, Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.[5] He is currently working on a PhD in Law at Yale University.

Early life and imprisonment[edit]

Born in Maryland, Betts was in gifted programs throughout his youth, and in high school was an honors student and class treasurer at Suitland High School in the Washington, D.C. suburb of District Heights, Maryland.[6]

At the age of sixteen, he and a friend carjacked a man who had fallen asleep in his car at the Springfield Mall.[7] Betts was charged as an adult and consequently spent more than eight years in prison (including fourteen months in solitary confinement),[8] where he completed high school and began reading and writing poetry.

Speaking at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest in 2016, he said: "I was in solitary confinement.... You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet."[9]

In prison, he was renamed Shahid, meaning "witness".[9]

Education, writing, and activism after prison[edit]

After serving an eight-year prison term,[10] Betts found a job working at Karibu Books in Bowie, Maryland. At the store, he was eventually promoted to store manager and founded a book club for African American boys, while attending Prince George's Community College in Largo, Maryland.[6] He later became a teacher of poetry in Washington, DC,[11] and in 2013, he taught in the writing program (WLP) at Emerson College.[12]

Betts is also the national spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice, and speaks out for juvenile-justice reform. He also visits detention centers and inner-city schools, and talks to at-risk young people.[13]

In 2012, President Barack Obama announced that Betts had been named a member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.[14]

In 2016, Betts graduated from Yale Law School and passed the Connecticut bar exam. In September 2017, the bar's Examining Committee recommended him for admission, after the bar had rejected his initial application for membership.[15][16] He is currently working on his Ph.D. in law at Yale.[17]

Awards and fellowships[edit]

In 2009, Shahid Reads His Own Palm won the Beatrice Hawley Award for poetry.[18]

In 2010, Betts was awarded a fellowship from the Open Society Foundation.[19]

His memoir, A Question of Freedom, won an NAACP Award for non-fiction.[17]

In 2017, Only Once I Thought About Suicide received the Israel H. Peres Prize for best student comment appearing in the Yale Law Journal.[17][8]

In 2018 he was chosen to be a writing fellow for PEN America's Writing for Justice Fellowship.[20]

In 2018 he was also awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.[21]

Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2021.[22]


His poems have been published in literary journals and magazines including Ploughshares,[11][23] Crab Orchard Review, and Poet Lore.[24]


External media
audio icon Audio Interview: Ex-Convict Writes About 'A Question of Freedom" Scott Simon, NPR
audio icon "Audio Interview: "Coming of Age in Prison- Reginald Dwayne Betts", WAMU The Kojo Nnmadi Show
audio icon In 'Bastards Of The Reagan Era' A Poet Says His Generation Was 'Just Lost', Fresh Air, December 8, 2015
audio icon The Sunday Read: Getting Out, New York Times, Sunday, June 14th, 2020
video icon Furious Flower presents R. Dwayne Betts, James Madison University, September 17, 2015
video icon "R. Dwayne Betts: A Mind Unconfined by Jail", Craig Wilson, USA Today
video icon Video- Reading & Interview- Reginald Dwayne Betts, USA Today



  • Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2010). Near Burn and Burden: a collection of poems. Warren Wilson College.
  • — (2010). Shahid Reads His Own Palm. Alice James Books. ISBN 9781882295814.
  • — (2015). Bastards of the Reagan Era. Stahlecker Selections. ISBN 9781935536659.[25]
  • — (2019). Felon: Poems. W.W. Norton. ISBN 9780393652147.

List of selected poems[edit]

Title Year First published Reprinted/collected
What we know of horses 2011 Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2011). "What we know of horses" (PDF). River Styx. 85: 37–38. Retrieved 2015-04-20. Henderson, Bill, ed. (2013). The Pushcart Prize XXXVII: Best of the small presses 2013. Pushcart Press. pp. 471–473.
A conversation 2006 Betts, Reginald Dwayne (Spring 2006). "A Conversation". Beltway Poetry Quarterly. 7 (2). Retrieved 2015-04-20.
let me tell you bout the night i died 2008 Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2008). "let me tell you bout the night i died". The Drunken Boat. 8 (III–IV). Retrieved 2015-04-20.
Misunderstood 2008 Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2008). "Misunderstood". The Drunken Boat. 8 (III–IV). Retrieved 2015-04-20.
Soldier's song 2008 Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2008). "Soldier's song". The Drunken Boat. 8 (III–IV). Retrieved 2015-04-20.



  1. ^ "Reginald Dwayne Betts". Retrieved 2021-10-01.
  2. ^ "Dwayne Betts - Yale Law School". Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  3. ^ "President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts". 2012-04-26. Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  4. ^ "Freedom Reads". Freedom Reads. Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  5. ^ "Reginald Dwayne Betts". Retrieved 2021-09-30.
  6. ^ a b Parker, Lonnae O'Neal (2 October 2006). "From Inmate to Mentor, Through Power of Books". Washington Post. Retrieved 25 September 2017.
  7. ^ Blake, Meredith (November 30, 2010). "The Exchange: R. Dwayne Betts on prison, poetry, and justice". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  8. ^ a b Betts, Reginald Dwayne (2016-01-15). "Only Once I Thought About Suicide". Yale Law Journal. Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  9. ^ a b Andre Bagoo, "From prison to poetry", Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, May 30, 2016.
  10. ^ Gonzalez, Elisa (2016-06-30). "A Decade After Prison, a Poet Studies for the Bar Exam". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  11. ^ a b Berg, Laura Van Den (2008-12-11). "New Voices: Reginald Dwayne Betts". Ploughshares Blog. Archived from the original on 2009-02-20. Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  12. ^ "Betts wins Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship". Emerson College Today. 2013-03-14. Retrieved 2020-08-16.
  13. ^ Craig Wilson, "R. Dwayne Betts: A Mind Unconfined by Jail", USA Today, August 12, 2009.
  14. ^ White House (26 April 2012). "President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts". Retrieved March 15, 2014 – via National Archives.
  15. ^ Robinson, Nathan J. (2017-08-04). "Nothing Will Ever Be Enough". Current Affairs. Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  16. ^ Collins, Dave (September 29, 2017). "Felon who graduated from Yale allowed to become lawyer". Associated Press. Retrieved October 1, 2017.
  17. ^ a b c "Dwayne Betts - Yale Law School". Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  18. ^ "Beatrice Hawley Award". The Society of the Hawley Family. Retrieved 2017-08-05.
  19. ^ "The Exchange: R. Dwayne Betts on Prison, Poetry, and Justice". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2015-12-17.
  20. ^ "Writing for Justice Fellowship 2018-2019". PEN America. 2019-10-04. Retrieved 2019-11-12.
  21. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Reginald Dwayne Betts". Retrieved 2021-10-08.
  22. ^ "MacArthur Foundation Announces 2021 'Genius' Grant Winners". The New York Times. September 28, 2021. Retrieved September 28, 2021.
  23. ^ Reginald Dwayne Betts at Ploughshares.
  24. ^ Author Page > Reginald Dwayne Betts, Alice James Books.
  25. ^ Michiko Kakutani (October 12, 2015). "Review: 'Bastards of the Reagan Era,' a Book of Poetry". The New York Times. Mr. Betts captures the stark brutality of prison life with chilling, matter-of-fact descriptions, and he evokes the hopelessness that accompanies many prisoners' belief that all narratives end "with cuffs around all wrists, again."

External links[edit]