Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Author, poet and ex-con gives talk on criminal justice reform

By Olivia Jones

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(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

(Jessica Picard/Daily Collegian)

Author, poet and ex-convict Reginald Dwayne Betts came to the Cape Cod Lounge at the University of Massachusetts on Wednesday evening to speak about reforming the criminal justice system and to sign copies of his memoir and poetry collections.

Betts visited UMass as part of the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series, which will host lectures, exhibits and panels that focus on mass incarceration in America for the remainder of the academic year.

“I think [my conviction] motivated me to know that I was set up to fail and I was woefully unequipped to survive prison,” said Betts.

At 16 years old, Betts plead guilty to six felony charges after he carjacked a man while holding him at gunpoint, and served over eight years in prison.

Betts said, “It is easy to talk about innocence, it’s not easy to talk about guilt.” He said he wants to be an example for other ex-convicts who want to make a life for themselves.

Since his release, Betts has received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, a master of fine arts from Warren Wilson College and a law degree from Yale Law School.

Betts is best known for his two books of poetry, his memoir and for being appointed as a member of the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Obama.

His memoir is titled “A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison” and his books of poetry are “Shahid Reads His Own Palm” and “Bastards of the Reagan Era.”

Director of the Holyoke Safe and Successful Youth Initiative (HSSYI) Jacqueline Lozada said, “I saw the people I work with in [Betts], it is so important to show someone who still succeeded.”

The HSSYI attended the lecture, titled “Youth, Race and the Failures of the American Justice System” along with UMass students, members of the Pa’Lante restorative justice group at Holyoke High School, Holyoke residents and members from Gateway to College, a program dedicated to guiding high school dropouts into college.

“The fact that he went to prison when he was 16, and then went to Yale, how many people can say that?” said Hectsy Robles, a student with Gateway to College.

“[It was] riveting and motivating, it makes me want to go to law school even more now,” said Rusheika Gordon, a junior sociology and political science major at UMass with aspirations to be a public defender.

Jessica Johnson, the outreach director for the history department said that a combination of professors from across the Five College (who specialize in the history of mass incarceration in America) as well as community members came together to choose Betts as a speaker.

Christopher Tinson, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Hampshire College, said that he is currently using Betts’ memoir in his class Warfare in the American Homeland. The class aims to educate students about incarceration and policing in the U.S.

Nat Herold, a co-owner of Amherst Books downtown, was selling copies of Betts’ books at the lecture.

There are ten more events scheduled this fall for the Feinberg Family Distinguished Lecture Series that are free and open to the public.

Olivia Jones can be reached at [email protected]

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