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Books vs. Bans: When Prisons Discourage Reading

On January 23, 2020, Dwayne Betts announced that his memoir A Question of Freedom, which chronicles Betts’s time as a young man in prison and how reading saved his life, was officially banned from Virginia state prisons.

Last semester, I helped teach a Justice and Literature class inside a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania, and we read A Question of Freedom halfway through the course. On our first day of discussion, most students had already read the book multiple times and had discussed it at length with one another in the yard. The conversations we had in class about Betts’ writing were some of the most important and honest conversations I’ve ever had about literature.

Incarcerated Students Reflect on A Question of Freedom

In his memoir, Betts circles around many questions, including why he committed the crime that landed him in prison for nine years. When we debated the answer to this question, one student named Chuck reflected:

“While reading his account, I found myself relating to this young man on a level that surprised me. Despite differences in age, race, and economic status, I found a mindset that was familiar…It turns out that several others found strong similarities between themselves and Betts, all different from my own, and they also adopted the answer that was closest to their own. With this in mind, I re-read the book and discovered what I missed the first time…Not only does he avoid giving a definitive answer, the possible answers proposed are relatable to everyone in ways that feel personal. He creates a connection between himself and the reader by allowing us inside his life, letting us feel all that is going on with him but at the same time manages not to tell the reader what they should feel the truth is. That is left up to them to decide.”

Sharath, another student in the course, said that he shared the book with some of his friends who felt insignificant in prison and disheartened about a life after release. He recounted that Betts’s book gave his friends hope because it shows how reading saved Betts from succumbing to complete despair as a young man inside prison. The fact that Betts is now a nationally renowned poet, criminal justice advocate, and Yale Law School alum made these men want to commit themselves to reading and follow in Betts’s footsteps. Why would Virginia state prisons want to discourage this?

Books Spark Conversation and Hope

For a creative writing exercise, another student named Dorian addressed a beautiful letter to Betts:

“Education can free you in ways that you never fully realize until you are in a place that you crave and dream to be free of…I know that you can understand that better than most people given the time that you spent in prison. I feel you and I are almost mirror images and polar opposites if that makes any sense…I came to prison in the early nineties at the heights of the get tough on crime era and the super predator rhetoric that captivated the American news cycle. I was the poster child of what a dangerous teen looked like…In reality, I was a lost kid in search of understanding and a way out of the inner city cycle of poverty that so many black people get trapped in…I have been in prison nearly three decades and I have become a totally different person than I was in my youth…I just wanted to express my gratitude for your work. I am ready for my second chance and I hope to meet you in the near future.”

Aren’t these conversations and reflections the point of great literature? Books like A Question of Freedom help us better understand one other and challenge us to ask the most difficult and painful questions in search for the truth. Virginia state prisons should return Betts’ memoir to their bookshelves and restore the chance for education, rehabilitation, and hope inside their walls.

By Ellen Skirvin

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