R. Dwayne Betts – “a good student from a lower-middle-class family” – carjacked a man, went to prison, and has written
A Question of Freedom is getting lots of attention (from NPR to HipHopWired), and I’m very glad. Those of us on the outside – the ones making decisions about who we lock up – need every report on prison we can get from those who’ve been there. Betts’ report is that of a very young man – a teen-ager still (“Sixteen years hadn’t even done a good job on my voice,” is the book’s first sentence) – and therefore shines important light on this aspect of contemporary US incarceration practice.
What I appreciate most in A Question of Freedom are the ways Betts attempts to:
1. understand why he was drawn to the uncharacteristic moment that brought him to prison;
2. express the responsibility he feels, especially to his mom;
3. speak out about all the young black men in prison with him, while at the same time working hard for a complex – rather than a simplistic – analysis of this fact;
4. present the varieties of senselessness he encountered in prison;
5. describe the various ways he educated himself (with some, but not much, help from prison programs or staff);
6. claim how literature – reading and writing – shaped the man he became as he walked out of prison.
Betts is no longer a teen-ager, but he is still a very young man. A Question of Freedom is being marketed as the first work of an emerging author, and that description makes sense. The book has the virtue of rawness – conveying as it does the confusion and circuitous thinking experienced by a child locked up with adults – and some beautiful writing. Betts’ telling also bears the (probably inevitable) limitations of a young mind that has not yet developed enough scope or distance to create a coherent whole. No matter the “more” I wish from the book, A Question of Freedom is important and I’m very glad to see it building a large readership.