Locked up to libraries: Man uses the power of books to make an impact on people after being in prison

New Haven

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) – When young people end up on the wrong side of the law, it can often lead to a lifetime of problems, trouble finding housing, or a job. The road often ends with them back behind bars, but that’s not always the case.

If you need some proof, there is a Connecticut attorney who is making the absolute most of his second chance.

It was on the night of December 7, 1996, when a 16-year-old Dwayne Betts made a bad decision, one that would change the course of his life.

“I know that I carjacked someone and I had held a gun, but I was also saying this is the only time in my life I’ve ever held a gun, like what happens from here,” Betts said.

Arrested the next day, it wouldn’t be long before he found himself in a courtroom, facing a cold, hard dose of reality.

“I stood in front of the judge and I was face life in prison, and the judge sentences me to nine years, and he says that I’m under no illusion, that sending you to prison will help, but you can get something out of it if you want,” Betts said.

Those words turned out to be prophetic because something did happen to Betts in prison. He developed a love for books and began dreaming of bigger things.

“I didn’t know how to be anything, but I committed myself to being something, so I told myself I’m going to be a writer,” Betts said.

After being released from prison, Betts worked in a bookstore, and then he went back to school. First college, then onto law school, and not just any law school, but Yale Law School. One of the most competitive in the nation.

“I’d like to think my story says something about what’s possible,” Betts said.

Betts is an author himself now. He’s written three books of poetry and his memoir. He’s also using the written word, which has been so important to his own success, to improve the lives of those who are currently incarcerated.

His ‘Freedom Reads’ Project, funded through grants from the likes of the Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation, will someday put libraries inside of prisons across the nation and in Connecticut.

“We create these beautiful structures, we put at 500-book collection in these and we put them in prison units around the country. So, if you have to be in a cell, you can see something beautiful every day,” Betts said.

At age 40, Betts’ success is the validation of the importance of education, hard work, and a commitment to helping others.

“I had to believe in the absurd for this to happen. I had to believe in something I had never seen,” Betts said.

Betts has also recently been honored with a ‘genius’ award, given out by the MacArthur Foundation It provides him with a $600,000 grant to work on that ‘Freedom Reads’ Project to put libraries in prisons around the country.

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