In 'Bastards Of The Reagan Era' A Poet Says His Generation Was 'Just Lost' After being convicted of carjacking as a teenager, Reginald Dwayne Betts spent eight years in an adult prison. Since his release, he has become a poet and a Yale law student.
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In 'Bastards Of The Reagan Era' A Poet Says His Generation Was 'Just Lost'

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In 'Bastards Of The Reagan Era' A Poet Says His Generation Was 'Just Lost'

In 'Bastards Of The Reagan Era' A Poet Says His Generation Was 'Just Lost'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When he was 16 and still wearing braces, in 1996, my guest, Reginald Dwayne Betts, was sentenced as an adult and sent to an adult prison. He'd done a terrible thing - using a pistol to carjack a man who had been sleeping in his car. Betts served over eight years for carjacking, robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He spent one of those years in solitary at a Supermax prison. Betts had been an honor student, a high school junior. He loved to read before going to prison, but in prison, books were his mental escape; so was writing. He got out of prison at the age of 24, in 2005. Since then, he's graduated from Prince George's Community College, the University of Maryland and the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. He's now a student at Yale Law School. He serves as a national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice and was appointed by President Obama to the coordinating council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. His memoir won the 2010 NAACP Image award for nonfiction. His second book of poems, "Bastards Of The Reagan Era," has just been published. Today marks the 19th anniversary of the day he was arrested. Dwayne Betts, welcome to FRESH AIR. What does the title of your book, "Bastards Of The Reagan Era," mean?

REGINALD DWAYNE BETTS: Well, I wanted to capture two ideas. First is that - is this idea of being fatherless. But the other ideas is that it's not just the idea of not having a father in the context of your family, or not having a parent in the concept of your family, but it's this notion that a whole sort of generation of young people were bastards of an era - of the Reagan era. And I think about my own life and I think about the life of people that's close to me. And I just recognize that we were almost - not abandoned, but we were just lost.

GROSS: What was it about the Reagan era that defines that sense of being lost and given up on?

BETTS: Well, of course it's the war on drugs. You know, I was born in 1980 and I think the war on drugs had a huge impact on my childhood. The policies around the Reagan era, around - you know - mandatory minimum sentences led to huge changes in the community, and also our response to people who were struggling with addiction. So I took my son to a museum in Chicago, and we were watching a sort of short clip about woolly mammoths. And something I saw really struck me as profound. If you see a site of trauma and a site of huge tragedy - a mudslide or something - you'll see the children in the middle of a circle and all of the mothers around those children. And so when I think about the bastards of the Reagan era, when I think about what didn't happen for us, I think we were essentially abandoned by society in large ways. And you can't look at our lives and see that circle of love and care and nurture around us. And we try to isolate it towards just the family and think about what was missing in the family. But with the book, I wanted to raise this larger question about what did it mean to be a product of an era that massively produced and reproduced these systematic issues in the lives of black folks?

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read a poem from your new book, "Bastards Of The Reagan Era." In this poem, you refer to someone named Malik, and I'm going to ask you to tell us who he is before you read the poem.

BETTS: So when I wrote this book, one of the things is that all of these are sort of stories that come out of my life. They're stories that come out of lives that are other people that I know. And I wanted the book to be intimate for me, so a lot of the names are just people that I know. And I was reluctant to put names from the media, and I was reluctant to put names of the people who actually experienced some of these things. And so every name is somebody that I know, although it's not necessarily the person that experienced that thing. So Malik is just - it's a name that I chose because it's a friend of mine. But the experience is just somebody who was shot by the police. And ultimately, the officer wasn't charged, and no indictment came forth, and obviously, the officer didn't go to prison for it.

GROSS: OK, would you read it for us?

BETTS: (Reading) "For City That Nearly Broke Me." A woman tattoos Malik's name above her breast and talks about the conspiracy to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way to say that someone kirked out, emptied five or six or seven shots into a still-warm body. No indictment follows Malik's death, follows smoke running from a fired pistol. An old quarrel, crimson against concrete and the officer's gun still smoking. Someone says the people need to stand up, that the system's a glass house falling on only a few heads. This and the stop snitching ads are the conundrum and damn all that blood. All those closed eyes imagining Malik's killer forever coffled to a two series of cells. And you almost believe them, you do, except the cognac in your hand is an old habit, a toast to friends buried before the daybreak of their old age. You know the truth of the talking, of the quarrels, and how history lets the blamed go blameless for the blood that flows black in the street. You imagine there's a riot going on and someone is tossing a trashcan through Sal's window, calling that revolution, while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed, and Malik's casket door clanks closed, and the bodies that roll off the block and into the prison and into the ground keep rolling, and no one will admit that this is the way America strangles itself.

GROSS: When did you write this? Was this a recent poem?

BETTS: No. I mean, that's the sad thing about it. I literally wrote this book - I wrote this poem maybe four years ago. So I wrote the poem before Michael Brown's death. I wrote it before McDonald's death. I wrote it before Freddie Gray's death. And in some ways, that's why reading the book publicly haunts me because it's almost as if - I mean, it is. The poems indicate that we're still living in experiences that date back years and years ago.

GROSS: So you know people to whom this kind of thing happened, where they were shot by the police?

BETTS: Yes - both know people and read the newspaper and remember stories from when I was a child, yes.

GROSS: Let's talk about your imprisonment. You were in prison. You did eight years for carjacking with a weapon, for armed robbery. You had a pistol that you used in that carjacking, but you never had carried a gun before. Can you tell us what you did? Just tell us what the crime was.

BETTS: Yeah, me and a friend of mine we went to the mall in suburban Virginia. And there was somebody that was asleep in their car. And we went to their car, and I had the gun, and I tapped on the window and asked him to get out of the car. He got out of the car. I remember throwing the gun in the passenger seat as soon as he got out of the car, and we jumped in the car and drove off. And we were arrested the next day. And this actually happened nearly 19 years ago to the date, because it happened on December 7, 1996.

GROSS: What were you thinking when you did that? Had you planned to carjack someone?

BETTS: No, I hadn't planned. I think I wrestle with that a lot both now that I have children and also now that I've, you know, been an educator and have been able to speak publicly about my experiences. I didn't plan it, and it was just one of those things where it was in the realm of possibilities in the community that I grew up in. I knew at least one other person who had committed a carjacking. I know a few people, actually, and I think the idea just came up and the next thing I knew, I was in the car with some people who were older than me. And then me and my friend, my co-defender - he was only 15 at the time - it ended up being me and him doing it. But it was just, like, a bad night where you make a decision that you would have never expected to make and that you can never turn away from.

GROSS: So I don't want to retry you. You've been tried, you've been found guilty, you've done your time. So I ask this question not in an attempt to retry you but just in an attempt to understand what goes through somebody's mind - like, a really good, decent person like you - when they put a gun to someone and tell them to get out of the car and that they're going to steal the car. And implicit in that - whether you plan to follow through or not - implicit in that threat is, and if you don't, I will pull the trigger and shoot you. Whether you intended to do that, you know, the guy who's your victim has no idea if you were really going to shoot him or not. He has no idea...

BETTS: Right, so I think...

GROSS: ...Even if he gets out even if he gets out of the car if you're going to shoot him or not. So what prevents you in that moment from having any empathy with that man? Just so we can, like, understand how these things happen.

BETTS: Right, so I'm actually not certain if - I think people know, really. They know if they have any intention of shooting somebody. And the gun I had was on safety and I didn't even know how to operate the gun. And so I think that at least in my situation, I knew that I wasn't going to shoot him. And I think that if he would've not opened the door, or ran, I would've just probably been standing in the parking lot looking like a fool. But that doesn't negate the fear that he had and that doesn't negate the sort of lack of empathy that I showed in that moment. And so if the question is what could lead me to that, I think it's that sometimes you get into a place where you don't realize that your decisions have real ramifications in the present and real ramifications for the future. Because honestly, you know, if we had this conversation now, there's no way that I could imagine doing that. But I was 16. And I just did not think in the same way that I think as an adult. And because it was in the realm of possibilities of things that could happen - like it was a real thing that might happen - I was presented with the opportunity, and I didn't have the wherewithal or the courage or the common sense to turn away.

GROSS: So let's talk about what it's like to be 16 and in the justice system. You were 16 when you were arrested, and you were given your Miranda rights. And you confessed, and you write - without a lawyer, without having called a lawyer first. And you write in your memoir that you didn't realize - you were told that anything you said could be used against you, but you didn't realize that not saying anything - that maintaining your right to not say anything - you didn't realize that that couldn't be used against you. Am I right? You were afraid that not saying anything would be held against you in court.

BETTS: You know, I think honestly that I was 16. And it's not that I was unaware of the fact that at 16 you could go to jail or could get locked up at a juvenile detention center. But I just thought that I was wrong - that I was caught - and that the best thing for me to do was to admit being wrong and find a way to make amends. So even though I was read my Miranda rights, I wasn't thinking about the fact that by confessing, by talking to the police officers, that could lead to different charges being filed that could take away some things that my lawyer might have done to maybe negotiate a plea deal and then get me to plead guilty for a lesser, more included offense. I didn't realize the Miranda - what would happen from that decision to talk. Again, I just imagined that I would be in a system in which, you know, you mess up and then adults around you make a decision that's not only in society's best interest but that's in your best interest. So if somebody would have told me, listen, if you talk to the police this day, you will likely end up going to prison. You're 16 years old, you're 125 pounds, you'll end up spending over a year in solitary confinement, you'll end up spending time in some of the worst prisons in Virginia - if somebody would have told me that that was what I was looking up against, then I probably wouldn't have said anything.

GROSS: So you were tried as an adult. I guess tried isn't the right word because you pled guilty. What's the right word?

BETTS: So people say tried as an adult, but what they really mean is that I was transferred - jurisdiction was moved from juvenile court, where the highest punishment I could've received was juvenile life, which - I was 16, it would have been five years. And my record would have been sealed after I completed whatever sentence the judge gave me. I was moved from juvenile court to adult criminal court, and that meant that I was exposed to whatever sentences an adult would be exposed to for committing the crimes that I committed if I were to be found guilty, and that I would be forced to serve that time in prison with adults.

GROSS: Why were you transferred to adult court as opposed to the juvenile justice system?

BETTS: So every state in the nation has some kind of legislative mechanism that allows juveniles - people under the age of 18 - to be tried as adults for certain crimes. And so usually if it's murder, rape, robbery, it's automatic. It's the prosecutor's decision. If they say that it should be transferred over to adult court, it's transferred over to adult court. And because my charges were carjacking, it wasn't a real conversation. It was 1996, carjackings were in the news. It carried life in Virginia, you know? They made a distinct crime for carjacking because of some of the high-profile carjackings that happened in the early and the mid-'90s. And so at that point, having committed that crime, I think the prosecutor just knew that I was going to adult court. It wasn't as if they looked at my record and looked at my file and they said, this is a kid that's on the brink of graduating from high school, he's never been in trouble with the law, maybe we should do something different. I think that those were conversations that just didn't occur because of the time period. That was the sort of era of the super predator. John Dilulio wrote his piece on super predators in 1995. And he was predicting a wave of, you know, violence committed by juveniles. And so I think at that time, we weren't, as a nation, really willing to think about this notion of hope and rehabilitation for, like, the youngest members of our community.

GROSS: My guest is Reginald Dwayne Betts. He's a poet and memoirist. He's also a student at Yale Law School. And his new book of poems is called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era." He served eight years for armed carjacking and robbery. Let's take a short break. We'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest Reginald Dwayne Betts was sentenced as an adult at the age of 16 and served eight years in adult prisons for carjacking, robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a robbery. He was released in 2005.

He's now a student at Yale Law School. He's written a memoir, and his second book of poems has just been published. It's called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era."

My impression from your memoir is that you think you were treated like, well, like, here's another, you know, black teenage boy who had a gun and did something awful, and we'll just, like, put him away. Like, there was no interest in who you were as an individual and what your life might turn out like if you had a second chance of any sort. By second chance, I don't mean, like, well, you're nice kid, no punishment at all. I mean just being treated - being treated more humanely and being given a more lenient sentence.

BETTS: Right. I mean, I think all over the country really. We have really punitive prison policies. And so what struck me and what I learned from the initial experience is I thought that I was different from my peers. You know, I had been in magnet school. I had been in the honors program my whole life. I never got less than a B in high school. So I thought that some of my peers would end up in prison because I knew what we were doing, and I knew what they were doing. But I expected to end up in college, and so I did think that I was unique. And commit my crime and then going to prison taught me that I, in fact, wasn't unique, and I was just like everybody else.

And it's not really this notion that I feel like I should have been treated with more leniency or been treated with more dignity. But I think it is this notion that we should have a system that imagines me being successful outside of prison, all of us being successful outside of prison. And so my judge, when he sentenced me, he said I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help, but you can get something out of it if you choose to.

And the reality is that when he said that to me I was 5'5" and 120 lbs. I went to prison, you know, with grown men. And I went into what people readily acknowledge is a treacherous and a wild place. And while I argue all the time that I was raised in prison and I was raised by men and although it was treacherous and wild, it was also humane. It was also people who mentored me, who nurtured me, who made sure that I stayed out of trouble, who talked about me as if I had the kind of promise that, you know, that judge didn't necessarily believe or no one in that courtroom believed. The truth is that prison is still a wild place. And a judge sent me there believing that he was under no illusion that it would help me.

And so I guess my takeaway at this point is that it's not that it's just me who should have been given more leniency, but that we need a system that imagines what happens upon release because that day that I was sentenced, the judge knew that I would come home when I was 24 years old. And most people aren't spending decades and decades in prison. And most young people, particularly who get tried as adults, they aren't spending decades and decades in prison. They're spending 10 years in prison, and they're going in at 16 and coming home at 25. And so it's this real question of - how do we fashion a system that acknowledges that they will return? - and that they should be able to return to the possibility of really being a contributing member of society.

GROSS: Now, I can see it really going either way in prison. I mean, for you - you started really immersing yourself in books and in studying. You studied Spanish. You studied law. You read every book you could get your hands on. You became a poet in prison.

But I imagine for a lot of people what they do in prison is get tougher and learn more about crime and become less and less capable of holding a job when they get out because it's harder to get a job when you have a record.

BETTS: I think that that's the important point. I think that it's not necessarily people go to prison and become better criminals because, you know, if that was the case, we wouldn't have so many people that get locked up and then confess to the crimes that they commit. I think what it is that people go to prison and they get broken in various ways. And so I was really fortunate. I mean, I could have went to prison and read and all of those books and did all of that studying and been broken and been beaten and been robbed, you know? I wasn't. I was safe.

And even though I spent all - or honestly, I mean, I spent over a year in solitary confinement. I could have went to prison and spent that year in solitary confinement, and that time in the hole could've broken me.

And so I think it's not necessarily that people go in and become something different because of their own choosing. I think it's that they go in, and it's just so much exposure to harm and to trauma that they leave without having any mental health treatment and without being able to get mental health treatment when they return to society. And then they leave to a society that discriminates against them because they've been in prison. Like, I did my time, and yet I was denied a full-tuition scholarship to Howard University. I did my time...

GROSS: Because you had to answer the question - were you ever convicted of a felony? - and your answer was yes.

BETTS: Right. And I had a full-tuition academic scholarship. And this is not - you know, this is Howard University. This is the mecca, and I was denied access to education from a historically black institution only because I had went to prison. I've been denied jobs from progressive education outfits only because I went to prison. And this is me. And so imagine how much worse it is if you come home and you have a few tattoos, if you come home and you don't immediately go to college and build a record for yourself establishing that you have some kind of intelligence that could be verified by paper.

I mean, it's just really difficult to leave prison and enter into the workforce and to enter in a society and be accepted as having, you know, done something, done your time for that mistake that you made and really want to push forward and be a father and, you know, be a partner to somebody and be a contributing member of society. It's just a lot of things that block you from doing that.

GROSS: My guest is Reginald Dwayne Betts. His memoir about life in prison is called "A Question Of Freedom." His new collection of poems is called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era."

After we take a short break, we'll talk about how his life has changed since he got out of prison 10 years ago.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Reginald Dwayne Betts. Nineteen years ago when he was 16, he was convicted of carjacking, robbery and the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He spent over eight years in adult prisons. He's now a student at Yale Law School. President Obama appointed him to the coordinating council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He wrote a memoir called "A Question Of Justice (ph)," and he has a new collection of poems, his second, called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era."

When you were incarcerated, one of the ways you kind of were able to survive was by reading. And reading kind of opened up this other world that you could live in while you were confined to a cell or while you were confined to solitary confinement, which you were for about a year. So, how did reading in prison compare to the experience of reading before you were incarcerated?

BETTS: I think, one, is before I got incarcerated, I read for pleasure, and I read because it was a duty. I just love books. And when I got locked up, I think books became magic. You know, books weren't really magic when I was a child. They were just something that I just really - I enjoyed reading. I thought it was important. But when I got locked up, it became magic. It became a means to a end.

I began to recognize that - so before I went to prison, school was where I got educated, and I didn't really think of the books that I read as adding to my education, per se. I just thought that this is what you do, like, as a human being in the world. I thought that stories were great. But once I got locked up, books became the site of magic. It became the way in which I experienced the world, but more importantly, I think it became the way in which I learned about what it means to be human and to be flawed and to want things that you can't have.

GROSS: How did you manage to get books? And how did you get them specifically when you were in solitary confinement?

BETTS: So, the story about solitary confinement, I think, really is the way that I became a poet and the way that I broadened my horizons intellectually, and I sort of diversified my reading because in solitary confinement, you couldn't have books. And you couldn't, like, request books, and you couldn't go to the library, but people will somehow find ways to get books into their cells.

And so it would be this rotating cycle of books that existed in solitary confinement. And somebody would leave the hole, and they would leave four books in the cell with them. So I would go into a cell and find three books. And it was frequently those Reader Digest (ph) books, and it would be four abridged books in one.

And I remember once, though - then you would say, well, I finished the books I have. Somebody want a book? And then you would get a book that you had to them. One afternoon, I asked for a book. I said - can somebody send me a book? And somebody slid a book under my cell door. I - to this day, I have no idea who sent it to me, but it was a anthology by Dudley Randall. It was called "The Black Poets," and that's the book that changed my life. It introduced me to Etheridge Knight, to Robert Hayden, to Lucille Clifton, to Sonia Sanchez and so many countless black writers and black poets that really shaped who it is that I wanted to be in the world.

That whole idea of not necessarily being able to choose what it is that you read broadened my horizons. That's how I learned about Tolkien. That's how I started reading fantasy. That's how I started reading science fiction. And so what happened is, you know, books really became magical because (laughter) frequently, I had no choice in what I was reading. And I was able to find things in those books that were really meaningful and hit me in certain ways that I hadn't been hit before.

GROSS: Why were you in solitary?

BETTS: It was - so this is one of those hard questions because the answer seems to suggest that I should have been in solitary. So it was for an assault on a correctional officer. But what actually happened is that a guard was telling me to go in my cell, and I didn't want to. And then they tried to slam the door on me and I held the door and didn't let her close the door. And she said I assaulted her, so I did six months in solitary for that.

And then a few years later, a officer was searching me. And they grabbed my crotch, and I didn't like it, so I threw their hands off of me. And I got six months in solitary for assault for that. And later, I gave somebody the finger, and I got 30 days in solitary for that. So it was frequently for, like, being accused of assaulting an officer.

GROSS: Was it impulsive to do what you did those times?

BETTS: I think I stopped getting in trouble by the time I turned 20, so it was frequently impulsive. But sometimes it was just incidental contact. I mean, my cell partner got sent to solitary confinement because he had a hat on his head that was made out of a pair long-johns. And the CO said give me that hat, and he threw it to him. And the guard caught it out of the air and then charged him with assault. So literally, the things that I was charged with for assault at that time, they changed the policy. Those things aren't even assault anymore because it's clearly incidental contact, and it's clearly not actually an assault.

But during that time period, they were opening up the super maximum security prisons Red Onion and Wallens Ridge. And so they were doing things to raise people's points so that they could be on the security level that required them to be sent to those prisons. And that's how I was sent to Red Onion State Prison, which was one of Virginia's super maximum security prisons. And I know it was a was a mistake because four or five months later, I was transferred back down because they realized that I didn't meet the criteria of whatever the worst of the worst is supposed to be.

GROSS: When you went to prison at the age of 16, you were wearing braces on your teeth.

BETTS: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: So - did the braces contribute to how people saw you and treated you? And how old were you when they were taken off? Were they taken off in prison?

BETTS: Yeah, they were taken up in prison. But I was fortunate - they were taken off at the jail because they knew that I wasn't about to - I can't remember if they were taken off before I was sentenced or after I was sentenced. But they knew that I was going to prison for a long time, and they don't have good dental treatment in prisons. And so they took me to a dentist, and the dentist basically just ripped them off.

GROSS: Let's talk about getting out of prison. So you get out of prison at the age of 24?

BETTS: Yeah, I was 24 years old.

GROSS: After serving eight years at various prisons, including a Supermax. When you got out, where did you go? Did you go back to the home where you grew up with your mother?

BETTS: I - well, no. So I got released on March 4, 2005. And I only say that because I'm a poet, and I thought that was really poetic, you know. I was, like, March 4. March forth into the world.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, right.

BETTS: But my mom, you know, actually my mom, I think - one of the things is that my mom didn't want me to be in the same community that I was in, you know, and around the same people that I was around when I committed my crime. And so I didn't know it, but my mom bought a house. And when I came home, the first job I had, really, was to help her move into her new house. And so we moved into a different house, and that was that.

I had a place to live, which is what most people really don't have. In fact, I had a place to live, and I had a car because my mom gave me a car. So I had a foundation that I think a lot of people come home from prison and don't have. You know, I had a stable home. I had a supportive mother. I had family members who were supportive. I had a car. It took me a long time to get my driver's license. I went to DMV nine times in one month (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

BETTS: But yeah, I came home to my mom. And actually, my mom has, you know, been my rock since I came home, at least up until the point that, like, I met my wife and I got married. My mom made sure that I was OK, you know. And so that was good.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Reginald Dwayne Betts. He has a new collection of poetry called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era." He is also now a student at Yale Law School. He won an NAACP Image Award for nonfiction for his earlier memoir which is called "A Question Of Freedom."

Let's take a short break. We'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Reginald Dwayne Betts. He's a writer and a law student now at the Yale Law School. His new collection of poems is called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era." His earlier memoir, "A Question Of Freedom," won the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. He was appointed by President Obama to serve on the Coordinating Council the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. One of the jobs you had after you got out of prison was working at a bookstore in Maryland, called Karibu Books. And you started a group there called Young Men Read. What was the purpose of the group?

BETTS: So this is - this is an interesting story. And I should say it because again, it demonstrates how everything that I've become has frequently been because of the women around me. And it's been because people pushed me. You know, a woman came into the bookstore, and she was buying a book for herself and a book for her son - oh, a book for herself. And I tried to get her to buy a book for her son. And she wouldn't. And so I talked to a friend of mine named Erica (ph). And I was kind of making fun of this woman. And I was like, this is what's wrong with black folks, you know? I tried to get her to get a book for her son, and she wouldn't. And Erica told me, you don't know this lady. And she might have a library card. She might have just bought a book for her son. You don't know how much diapers cost. You don't know how much child care costs. What gives you the right to criticize her? And then she told me, and more importantly, what are you doing for young black boys? What are you doing to increase literacy in the black community? And I was like, man - I was like, man, OK, I guess you're right. Will you help me start a book club? And so me and her started this book club call Young Men Read. And it was for 6 to 11-year-olds. And it was for 12 to 18-year-olds. And I ran it every Sunday out of the bookstore. I bought the first couple of sets of books with my own money. And then the parents would start buying them books. But, you know, for me, it was a great experience 'cause, one, I had never done something like this. That became my opportunity to introduce young folks to literature and to introduce young folks to books and then talk to them about what it meant and talk to them about what it was, you know, trying to say to them and then listen to them and see what they were hearing from it. And so it was one of the more enjoyable things that I did when I came home.

GROSS: So you're in Yale Law School now. What are your intentions? How do you want to use your law degree?

BETTS: Initially, I went to law school because I wanted to be a public defender. And I wanted to be a trial attorney. And then I realized that - that I can't stand beside somebody who's likely to go to prison, even if I know that the prison sentence they get is, in many ways, a win for them, you know, that maybe they were facing 30 years and they get 10 years. And they get a shot at, you know, redeeming themselves, or they get a second chance. I just realized that I cannot stand beside somebody and then watch them go to prison and imagine that it's OK. So in trying to determine what I would do, given that I'm not doing that, I realized that when Howard rejected me, when I was rejected for jobs, when I have to fill out the applications for apartments and they ask if I've been convicted of felony, when my friends don't get apartments because of their records... You know, I realized that until law school, I never thought that you could do something about that. And so I've decided to work on the civil side of things, and I plan on doing employment discrimination work. I plan on representing people on pardons. I plan on representing people on parole because I feel like if I do that, then I'm fighting to get somebody out of prison. And that person and I both know that to win that fight, they have to be able to demonstrate that they'll be an asset to society. And I feel like doing that work is the kind of thing that I could do and feel good about doing that work. And more importantly, really, I think that's the kind of work that drove me to go to law school 'cause I went to law school with friends in mind. And so at this point, it's too late for them in terms of public defenders. But what they do need is people that's doing post-conviction work. And so I'll try to do that kind of work, both for people that I know and for people that I don't know.

GROSS: In your acknowledgments, you thank - you know, for your book - you thank God. And I'm wondering which god you're thanking and when you came around to thinking about God - because in prison, you spent time with Muslims. And you decided that that wasn't going to be your thing. You know, that - you learned interesting things there and met interesting people, but you were going to find your sense of place and your identity as an individual and not as part of a faith.

BETTS: Well, I think not formally as a part of a faith - 'cause I mean - I - you know, I always felt like Muslims worship the same God that Christians worship. And so - and, you know, my family's Christian. I think my family's Baptist. I probably have a complicated relationship with the church. But I mean, I still tend to think that it's just one God, and it's the same God. And so, you know, honestly, I just - you can't survive prison and imagine that you did it all by yourself. And so when I thank God, I think what I'm saying is that time and time again, I've been in situations that I had no right to survive. You know, I've been in places - I mean, actually, I have no real right to be at Yale Law School. I know a lot of brilliant people that I went to school with who didn't end up at Yale Law School. I know a lot of brilliant people that I met in prison who may never get out of prison. And so, you know, I thank God because it was - things could have turned out really different for me. One or two decisions in prison went another direction, and I wouldn't be talking with you today. So I think I can't help but to thank God. I think I'm both grateful - and by thanking God, I think I'm just aware that this is not just all the product of what I can do with my own hands.

GROSS: Do you ever dream that you're in prison?

BETTS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, way too often actually - yeah, way too often. I think I said that before, you know, maybe one of my fears was that I would come home and find out I never left prison. And I've sort of learned to embrace that because if I - when I dream about prison, I recognize that there are people that I know who are still in prison. And so, yeah, I mean, the only dreams I have are about prison.

GROSS: The only dreams you have are about prison?

BETTS: Yeah. I mean, you know, like 90 percent of them - those vivid dreams, where you wake up and you kind of actually know what's happening. Yeah, most of my dreams are about prison.

GROSS: Is it a relief when you realize you're not actually there?

BETTS: I've actually never said that to a person before (laughter). But yes, it is a relief. One of the things that is so visceral and is so haunting is because sometimes, I have to force myself to wake up. You know, one of the things about prison is it's trying to avoid hard decisions. And I mean - and when I mean hard decisions, I mean decisions that revolve around violence and revolve around you doing things that may lead you to get more time. So sometimes I'll be in a dream, and I just have to force myself to wake up because I was fortunate to have never been confronted with those decisions. And I think sometimes in my dreams, I end up being confronted with those decisions.

GROSS: Your mother wanted to protect you. And yet, you ended up in prison. I know that you want to protect your sons from that kind of fate. But what do you feel is in your power to do?

BETTS: So I think really, I can't avoid certain conversations with my sons. My wife and I, we just can't avoid certain conversations. Some of that's good. You know, my wife's an occupational therapist. She has a master's degree from Howard University. I'm a poet. I'm a writer. I'm at Yale Law School. We can't avoid having these conversations about what it means to be a college graduate, what it means to have a professional degree, what it means to be at an elite institution. So my sons get that. They run through Yale. They play at Yale. They understand that. But there's also other conversations that I can't avoid. My son, when he was 5 years old, one of his classmates said, you know, your dad went to jail for stealing a car. And it crushed him. You know, he was crying. He went to the teacher crying. The teacher called me. And I said, OK, I'll talk to him. And at 5 years old, I had to explain to him that I had robbed somebody and I went to jail for it. You know, 5-year-olds, they understand jail and prison as places for bad people. So we've had to have these conversations. And we have them, you know, not all the time. But they come back. And they come back. And they come back. And I think the way that I protect him is by not trying to shield him from the hard truth that is this world, you know, not trying to shield him from the reality that it's an overwhelming number of people of color in prison, the reality that it's issues around crime and violence that we have to deal with in our community, the reality that he is in a private school right now because I fear the kind of education that he would get in a public school. And I think for me, protecting him is instilling in him this sense of responsibility and ownership for the world that he lives in. You know, he sees my wife get up every morning and go to work. He sees me get up and go to school. He sees the work that we do - both of them, Miles and Micah. They see the things that we do. And I think that that's how we protect them. No, I'm not saying - my mom did a great job. She instilled in me the values that allowed me to survive prison. She instilled in me, you know, a love of books. She instilled in me a sort of sense of independence that really served me well when I was in prison. My mom has no blame for anything that I did. But I do think that the thing that I'm able to do that my mom wasn't able to do is to form that circle - elephants - around my children. And that circle includes me. It includes my wife. It includes my mom. It includes friends of mine. It includes my professors. And, I mean - and that's how I guaranteed that they don't end up in prison - 'cause at the end of the day, I don't think that that's as complicated as we make it out to be. I think that most Americans - and I know most white Americans - never have to confront that question. And so I think what happens is that, you know, a lot of times, we are afraid to confront that question. But by me confronting it every day, I think I build the kind of environment that ensures that my sons - both Miles and Micah - will not just survive, but will thrive and will add something to this world and hopefully make it better than it was when they came here.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. And good luck to you.

BETTS: Thank you, Terry. This was truly enjoyable, and I appreciate the opportunity.

GROSS: Reginald Dwayne Betts has a new collection of poems called "Bastards Of The Reagan Era." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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