Reginald Dwayne Betts' “firsts” land on opposite ends of a spectrum. The first in his family to graduate from college, eighteen years ago he became the first family member to go prison.
At sixteen, a Virginia judge sentenced him to nine years in prison for carjacking and robbery charges. It was, he says, a matter of being exposed to the wrong things. The Suitland native and high school honor roll student decided soon thereafter to create better opportunities for himself. In the tradition of writers like Chester Himes, Etheridge Knight and Jimmy Santiago Baca, Betts became a poet in prison.
Two months after being released from prison, Betts became a student at Prince George’s Community College. While at Prince George's, he served in the student government as vice president for academic affairs, Phi Theta Kappa honor society president and editor of the college’s literary journal. He also worked full-time and began leading poetry workshops with students at Hart Middle School in southeast Washington, D.C.
He graduated from Prince George’s Community College with Honors and a full tuition scholarship to the University of Maryland. Despite his academic success, his prison record still led him to lose opportunities. Just a month before accepted the academic scholarship to attend the University of Maryland, Howard University withdrew a similar offer upon learning of his criminal record. Two years later, as the student commencement speaker for his graduating class, Betts would remind himself that nearly twelve years to the date he had been sentenced to nine years in prison.
The recipient a 2010 Soros Justice Media Fellowship, Betts is an advocate for juvenile justice and prison reform. His first collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, won the Beatrice Hawley Award. Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. His writing has also led to a Soros Justice Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Ruth Lily Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. In addition to his writing, Mr. Betts serves as the national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice and was appointed to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Barack Obama. He is currently a student at Yale Law School.