After incarceration, how do you reenter a society that doesn’t offer open arms? Reginald Dwayne Betts is an award-winning author, poet, lawyer, and outspoken advocate for criminal justice reform, whose work interrogates and challenges our notions of justice.
Betts has adapted his celebrated poetry collection, Felon, into a one-man performance piece, which he will perform for this SAL Presents event. Q&A with Stacy D. Flood.
Betts transformed himself from a sixteen-year old kid sentenced to nine years in prison to a critically acclaimed writer and graduate of the Yale Law School. In October 2018, The New York Times Magazine published Reginald Dwayne Betts’ long essay “Getting Out.” Several months later, the piece was awarded a National Magazine Award. The publication was another example of Betts entering into a new genre and bringing the same depth and richness of self-reflection and exploration of the central problem on this generation: incarceration and its effects on families and communities.
Betts’ latest collection of poetry, Felon, interrogates and challenges our notions of justice. The celebrated collection tells the story of a man confronting post-incarceration life, and it has been adapted into a one-man performance piece called Felon: An America Washi Tale. Says Betts, “Here, I weave traditional theater, poetry, fine art, and Japanese paper making aesthetic principles into a meditation on my own experiences of incarceration.”
When he was awarded the PEN New England Award for poetry for his collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era, judge Mark Doty said: “Betts has written an indelible lament for a generation, a necessary book for this American moment.” His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, is the story of a young man confined in the worst prisons in the state of Virginia, where solitary confinement, horrific conditions, and the constant violence threatened to break his humanity. Instead, Betts used the time to turn himself into a poet, a scholar, and an advocate for the reform of the criminal justice system.
A recent collaboration with visual artist Titus Kaphar lead to The Redaction, an exhibition of prints at MoMA PS1. Drawing inspiration and source material from lawsuits filed by the Civil Rights Corps on behalf of people incarcerated because of an inability to pay court fines and fees, The Redaction features poetry by Betts in combination with Kaphar’s etched portraits of incarcerated individuals. Together, Betts’ poems and Kaphar’s printed portraits blend the voices of poet and artist with those of the plaintiffs and prosecutors, reclaiming these lost narratives and drawing attention to some of the many individuals whose lives have been impacted by mass incarceration.
Between his work in public defense, his years of advocacy, and Betts’ own experiences as a teenager in maximum security prisons, he is uniquely positioned to speak to the failures of the current criminal justice system and presents encouraging ideas for change. As a result of that work, President Barack Obama appointed Betts to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and, more recently, Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut appointed him to the Criminal Justice Commission, the state body responsible for hiring prosecutors in Connecticut.
Betts is a Ph. D. in Law candidate at Yale. As a Liman Fellow he spent a year representing clients in the New Haven Public Defender’s Office. Betts was also one of 25 selected for the 2021 MacArthur Fellowship.
Stacy D. Flood, our moderator for the evening, is originally from Buffalo. His work has appeared at ACT, Ghost Light Theatricals, Theatre Battery, and Theater Schmeater in Seattle, as well as in SOMA Magazine, Seattle Weekly, three Seattle Fringe productions, the Akropolis Performance Lab’s New Year/New Play salon, Playlist Seattle, the Adaptive Arts Theatre Company’s Night of New Works, Macha Theatre Works’ Distillery series, Mirror Stage’s ‘Expand Upon’ readings, The Hansberry Project’s REPRESENT festival, Infinity Box’s Centrifuge,FUSION Theatre Company’s ‘The Seven’ Short Works Festival, and in Starbucks’ The Way I See It campaign. He has served as an instructor at Seattle’s Hugo House and Portland’s Literary Arts as well as a lecturer at San Francisco State University — from which he holds an MA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, and a Clark/Gross Novel Writing Award — and he has additionally been awarded both a Getty Fellowship to the Community of Writers and a Gregory Capasso Award in Fiction from the University at Buffalo. Furthermore, he has been a finalist in the Ashland New Play and Playwrights Foundation Bay Area festivals, and in addition, an artist-in-residence at DISQUIET in Lisbon and Millay Arts in New York. His play entitled The Optimist, or What Space Travel Means to Me will be featured as part of ACTLocal in 2022, and published by Lanternfish Press, as well as an editor’s choice pick for both Shelf Awareness and the Historical Novel Society, The Salt Fields is his first novella.