University of Maryland graduate whose teenage imprisonment inspired his career as a nationally renowned poet and lawyer defending incarcerated people received a 2021 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as the “Engineering Grant” .
Reginald Dwayne Betts ’09 was among 25 scientists, artists, activists and academics announced today as recipients of the $ 625,000 unconditional award. It honors individuals of exceptional talent, creativity and motivation, and encourages them to continue their creative endeavors to improve the human condition.
Originally from Prince George County, Betts was 16 when he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery. He spent the next nine years in prison, including a year and a half in solitary confinement. It was there that Betts learned to love reading and began to express his feelings in poetry.
He returned home to enroll in community college, then earned an English degree from UMD, an MA from Warren Wilson College, and a doctor of law from Yale Law School. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in law there.
Betts’ books include his memoir, “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison,” and the acclaimed poetry books “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” and most recently, “Felon”. He has received Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and won a 2019 National Magazine Award for his New York Times essay, “Getting Out”. In 2019, he also collaborated with artist Titus Kaphar on “Redaction,” an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City that combined poetry and engraved portraits to examine the question of surety.
A sought-after speaker, he addressed the UMD campus for the first time at his graduation ceremony in 2009, and more recently at a presidential Grand Challenges forum last fall.
In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Betts to the Juvenile Justice and Crime Prevention Coordinating Council, and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont appointed him in 2019 to the State Criminal Justice Commission. Among Betts’ greatest accomplishments, he said, he helped three men with whom he served time to get out of jail.
He is the founding director of Freedom Reads, a nonprofit organization that builds libraries in prisons to open another kind of door for people inside, to the world of literature. It also organizes author visits and creates book clubs for young incarcerated people.
He told the MacArthur Foundation that someone – he still doesn’t know who – slipped Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” into his cell and introduced him to the power of words, and that’s what he did. try to share.
“I believe people serving time deserve to have access to books that give us dignity,” he told the MacArthur Foundation. “I believe freedom begins with a book. I believe that building liberties of liberty and placing them in prisons across the country will be the beginning of someone’s liberty story.