Ex-Convict Writes About 'A Question of Freedom'
SCOTT SIMON, host:
What happened when you were 16?
Mr. R. DWAYNE BETTS (Author): That's probably the most difficult question it is for me to answer, even though it might be the question that I'm asked most often. But I would just say when I was 16 years old I was stuck in between two worlds. And it was the streets and it was school. And for some reason I thought that I could straddle the line and still find a way to make it to college.
Mr. BETTS: But the reality was just different. And I was impulsive just like any other 16 year old. So one night I found myself would have gone it my hand, carjacking a man.
SIMON: We're talking with R. Dwayne Betts. He was 16, skinny, a good student with a great mom, when as he said he held a gun for the first time to join a friend and stick a gun in a sleeping man's face and steal a car. He's written a book, "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison." It recounts the eight years that he spent in a series of Virginia prisons, mostly as an adult. Mr. Betts is now a graduate student at Warren Wilson College, a published poet who teaches poetry at several schools in the Washington, D.C. area. Joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. BETTS: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.
SIMON: Let me take you back to that moment that changed your life. And I think it's fair to say - and this might be the point - the life of the man whose face you put the gun into. You pled guilty, but at the sentencing hearing you apologized to the victim but you blamed what happened on something else.
Mr. BETTS: Well, during the sentencing my family got up to speak for me.
Mr. BETTS: A lot of friends - and all of them get up to say that I did it because I didn't have a father in my life.
Mr. BETTS: And one thing that I feel I needed to do was, one, apologize to the victim, but soon make it a point when I stood up in the court to say I didn't commit this crime because I didn't have a father in my life. And I just really blamed it on a poor decision, an aberration, one night I became someone else and then in 30 minutes everything changed.
SIMON: Yeah. You were always a bright young man. But it seems like in prison you discovered reading in a new way.
Mr. BETTS: And this is the thing though. People always tell me that that I was bright. And I think I was bright. But when I tell people that I began to read in a different way in prison, I think what it is, is I began to really investigate what it was I was reading and have conversations about books with other people. And so I was at the point where a wide range of people who you wouldn't expect to be reading John Steinbeck was having a conversation about "East of Eden"…
Mr. BETTS: …before it was on an Oprah's Book Club. You know, we thought that we were the ones that made it an Oprah book instead of Oprah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BETTS: So I think that's what changed - in prison I actually had to change to have a conversation about what this book means and what does it mean to me and what does it mean in my life.
SIMON: You read Nora Roberts.
Mr. BETTS: I read everything. And I read Nora Roberts just because I think there's some romance in my life too. But the truth is, it was a good story, and I learned the importance of a well-written story from reading things like Nora Roberts and fantasy novels, things that honestly most of the students I went to college with and most of the professors might have really never thought to read.
Mr. BETTS: But it was good. And it got me from one day to the next.
SIMON: You say in the book, I have seen things I will not recover from.
Mr. BETTS: Okay, I mean that's - I was talking to one of my professors at Warren Wilson and what came up in the conversation was that because I spent so much time in prison and all of my adult memories get funneled through the fact that I went to prison, I really can't recover from them because I can't move beyond them. I'm here today and I should be happy. And it is a joyous moment for me. I wrote a book, I just graduated from college. But every minute I know part of the reason that I'm here is because the stories that I tell came from prison.
Mr. BETTS: The desire to be a writer came from prison. As so I can never really fully recover from the things that I saw because I see them every day.
SIMON: I'm going to risk pressing you a little bit on what you saw.
Mr. BETTS: A lot of things stick out. But I will say this one story because I think it sort of captures the crazy that you could find in prison.
Mr. BETTS: Somebody yelled (unintelligible) a body up here. And they had put an older white guy in the cell with this young black dude. And they had been having problems. The white guy moved out of the cell on his own twice. And the guards kept telling him to move back into the cell. So him and the guy started fighting. I saw the nurses carting the body off the yard. But they was running and I saw the nurse on a dude's chest trying to revive him. You know, I saw somebody get their head split open with a lock and a sock over eight stacks. To put all of this stuff together where it's just a collage of violence in my head.
In a way it's difficult to talk about it, because, one, it didn't happen to me, so I sort of feel like I'm selling the pain of other people when I start telling all of these stories. But soon when I tell it, all of it mixes up into my head in just one blur of violence. And then I got to a find a way to back away from it. You see - I mean, and I think that's why in the book I didn't want to focus as much on the violence because I think the violence is what we already know. And the humanity is what we don't know about prisoners. And that's why the prison reform movement is so slow, because once you commit a crime, people have a hard time thinking that you could redeem yourself.
SIMON: There are a lot of people who hear an interview like this and they might have some sympathy for you. But they get back to the fact that you were there because you harmed somebody.
Mr. BETTS: Right.
SIMON: And that you committed a crime and you caught - in addition to that, you caused an innocent human being pain. And therefore, if you were scared, if you were hurt, he deserved it. He had it coming. And that's what locks people off from taking advice from someone who's been in prison.
Mr. BETTS: And I understand that sentiment. What I say to the person that's saying that is, would you rather me come out of prison and be able to get a college degree and be able to volunteer in a community and be able to speak about ways in which prisoners can improve their lives so that they don't commit more crimes, or would you rather I come out depraved, I come out haunted because someone raped me? So I say to the victim that I'm deeply regretful for what happened and if I could do it all again, I wouldn't. But I can't go back to that moment. So at some point, I will hope that the whole world will give me the opportunity to redeem myself.
SIMON: Dwayne Betts, author of the new book, "A Question of Freedom." Mr. Betts, thanks so much.
Mr. BETTS: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
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