Reginald Dwayne Betts
Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two young sons. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Mr. Betts to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. An award-winning writer and poet, Mr. Betts’ memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, was the recipient of the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. In 2010 he was awarded a Soros Justice Fellowship to complete The Circumference of a Prison, a work of nonfiction exploring the criminal justice system. In addition, Mr. Betts is the author of a collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. His latest collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era, will be published in October 2015. In addition to his writing, Mr. Betts is National Spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, a not for profit organization dedicating to ending the practice of sending juveniles to prison with adults. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland and was recently a Radcliffe Fellow to Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies.
Redemption & Violence & Personhood
Imagine if all those people with cells and state numbers in their past. With tattoos and all the memories that mark them as felons, as criminals. This is how I imagine the meetings: Each week dozens of black men get together to commune, dozens of black women. The meeting location is always nondescript, but large enough to hold an entire city. Running down the numbers ain’t worth it but everyone in the room knows as many people with records as without. Fathers and sons and cousins and aunts and uncles and muthafuckas with the wildest of nicknames. The Polecats and Green Eyes and Snakes and Slims and Pops and all the names that women go by inside, the names not given to them by their mothers, the names hidden to me know because to know their names is a step towards them not being invisible and who is more invisible today than the legions of black women who have been ensnared by the criminal justice system? When the first speaks, the others quiet down. 06795. 251534. 00687. The five digit numbers are said without interruption. One man after another. And then: Augusta Correctional Center. Attica. Folsom. Fairfax County Jail. The Wall. Prison and prison and jail and prison and prison and jail. Generations are always in the room. Some remember King’s murder. This is what I imagine. A room where all the invisible come together and recognize their number: not with statistics, not with graphs and charts, but rather with stories that weigh the room down.
For nearly a decade, in one way or another, I’ve been involved with criminal justice reform. But really, to be involved just means to be aware. To notice when the two young men walked into Duron looking for a job, confessing that their skin still reeked of the cells they had recently left. A job one of the conditions of release. They didn’t know that the men there, mostly black and brown, would laugh as the manager shot jump shots into the trash can with their application. They didn’t know that I would remain silent, my felonies masked by the wording on the application: Have you been convicted of a felony in the past seven years? And I said no, knowing my conviction had already hit the age of halfway decent bourbon. And to notice them means to recognize how often I’m in spaces where those who have stood opposite of a judge or rendered invisible. This happens from employment to housing to college. It happens with such frequency and impunity that I was once told in my first semester constitutional law class that felons are an example of people who can have their constitutional rights snatched with no legal recourse. But I’d already known that. When I stood outside the elementary school where I voted for President Barack Obama, my son in my arms, a Nat Turner t-shirt on my chest – I knew I voted only because I’d moved to Maryland, where you only had to be off probation to vote, and hadn’t stayed in Virginia, where you had to have your rights restored.
Still, today there is work being done. Work all over. On just about every front you can imagine there is work being done. Challenging being made to sentencing structures, to mandatory minimums, to the overuse of prosecutorial discretion. Slow rolling is still rolling as they say. And yet, even as advocates against mass incarceration multiply – there is a stunning silence.
This is what we don’t talk about: people convicted of violent criminal acts are routinely tossed under the bus by the most progressive of us. Nearly every discussion about the War on Drugs looks to spin the narrative that many, if not most of the people incarcerated are for non-violent drug offenses. Because non-violent drug offenders are sympathetic to the public. Because the story is that if they were white and had a home and didn’t buy crack on the corner, they would not be in prison. And while many of these things are true (and space doesn’t permit me to get at what I disagree with), you have to look askance when you hear the rational for initiates that seek to fix this problem. Examples abound, but the one most pressing happened in the state that’s currently home for me. Recently, Governor Malloy of Connecticut revealed his Second Chance Society. Governor Malloy’s intention is to reclassify drug possession as a misdemeanor and send fewer non-violent offenders to prison. In presenting the plan to the public, the Governor’s hook was that the changes would allow law enforcement to “better pursue and punish violent felons, putting them behind bars for longer sentences.” People have agreed that conversations about the over incarceration of people of color in America presupposes that those convicted of robbery, murder, assault and rape deserve the deepest and darkest and most ruinous of prisons to call home. Even as knowledge and awareness of mass incarceration reaches every corner of our country, even as it becomes the topic of the public conversations of presidential candidates, there is a doubling down on the idea that more prison more prison more prison is the answer for a broad group of people arbitrarily considered to pose a perpetual threat to society.
During a time when Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has held prime real estate on New York Times’ Best Seller List, during a time when prominent legislators like Rand Paul and Corey Booker make criminal justice reform a prominent part of their public positioning, during a time when John Legend, a Grammy award winning musician, starts a foundation aimed at stemming mass incarceration – it seems like yelling wolf to say that people are purposefully erasing folks. But if you look a bit deeper, if you check out how the war on drugs, for many, is the source of mass incarceration – you realize that what they mean with all the non-violent talk is that there is someone that deserves the fifty-three year sentence. These calls for reform that pretend that prisons are overwhelmingly filled with non-violent offenders are not the result of some juvenile naivety, it’s the intentional erasure of people who don’t fit that profile: people whose lives demand redemption and mercy to entertain release.
The boys that ran with me as I (and they) came to manhood are all still in prison. Markeese has 53 years. Fats has 50 years. Juvie has life. Absolut has 30 some years. My man Black has three life sentences. My other man Black has like 25. And there are names that I do not remember, cannot remember as I’ve worked hard at erasing the details of that time, though one might not recognize that if they read my poetry, my prose, if they listened to me speak. A person might not recognize how hard I’ve worked at forgetting that a confined step mirrors every single free step I take. There are so many names and narratives that are absent from public spaces.
I understand what it means when we are not the subjects of the public conversations – it means that we are expected to die silently and slowly as the rest of America debates the relative harm of twenty dollars worth of crack.
You need to look no further than the narratives that quickly form around every black man murdered in the streets. Notice how quickly Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and even the twelve-year old Tamir Rice became thugs. Became, in the minds of some, the live representation of monsters. Black and big and threatening and feared. For those who are bent on supporting white supremacy at all costs and for those who are just bent on supporting police officers at all cost, the narrative needed to justify the blood in the street had been developed and shaped into the finest of propaganda years ago. Turn the victim into a monster. Suggest that they had just committed a robbery, in the case of Michael Brown, or that the killer feared for his life in the case of Trayvon Martin: make them violent and make them felons. Society has conceded that there should be little redemption for those who have committed violent acts and even less empathy. And while I’m reluctant to even mention the deaths of these black men in this context, to fail to do so would pretend that many prayed Michael Brown had some long criminal history to shield the cop that murdered him.
Part of the pull to make sure the public knew these men and boys were not monsters came from the tacit agreement amongst all: there are some who do not deserve dignity, who need not be humanized, defended, acknowledged – who should be erased. When the prosecutor called me a menace to society, he followed the script laid out repeatedly: those who you demonize, you defeat. This, of course, is not to shift the focus away from the endemic and persistent policing problems that have lead to the seemingly routine killings of unarmed black and brown men and women in the streets – but it is to point out how alarming it is to see how quickly everyone wants to distance themselves from the mythical violent nigga. As if we have all just read Richard Wright’s Native Son, and confronted with the idea of Bigger Thomas, have decided that he is the problem and anyone that remotely resembles the idea of him should be banished from sight and public conversation.