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'Felon' Author Says, 'Everybody Has To Tell Their Kids Something'

For years, poet Reginald Dwayne Betts hid the fact that he had served time in prison.

Betts, a lawyer who was sworn into the Connecticut bar two years ago, is finishing up his PhD at Yale University, where he also earned his law degree.

But in his latest collection of poems, titled Felon, this once secret part of his identity is a central feature. In raw, emotional language, Betts uses his experiences in the criminal justice system — he served time from ages 16 to 24 — to challenge our understanding of incarceration and freedom.

He says he decided to embrace his past in this collection of poems because "you can't really get away from it." In an interview with NPR, he said:

Here are some highlights from the interview:

On Whether He's The Rule Or The Exception To Life After Prison

I think I'm a part of the struggle. I think that some of what I've done [since] has just been because I was equipped with a certain set of skills I was able to build on while I was in prison. And so, it made things a bit easier. I came home [from prison] — I still look like a 17-, 18-year-old kid — that made things a little easier. But, really, I came home at a moment where people started to think about incarceration in a different way, and that let me slip into certain opportunities.

But it depends on what you mean by a rule or the exception. About a rule, you mean: Do most people come out of prison and just try to figure out what it means to be a father, husband, partner, son again? I think that most of us do that. If you mean, you know, do most of us end up going to Yale Law School — I mean, mostly none of us end up going to Yale Law School. So, in that way, I think I'm just a general type of exception. But I like to think that I'm just part of the struggle because we all sort of exist in this thing, trying to figure out what it means to be human day-to-day and what it means to have, like, suffered and made other people suffer.

On Choosing Poetry

I like to think that the poem is trying to hit you in the gut. I like to think that the poem comes from someplace [of] deep and intense emotion and [is] this thing that I can't run away from. Whereas the other vehicles, you know, I'm using my mind way more, I'm trying to be analytical, I'm trying to say something that could be backed up and supported with facts, with argument, with details. But with the poem, I might have a line that just says 'and we was too damn tired to be beautiful' and that line comes in at the end of one of the poems I wrote ... That, and that that's not supposed to prove anything. It's just supposed to admit something: that, despite it all, sometimes it's just hard. And you could do that in a poem in a way that you can't really do that in any other medium.

When I went to law school and I decided to be a lawyer, I didn't want to be, like, a lawyer and a poet. What I wanted was to be a lawyer-poet. And, so, the redacted poems are sort of my first attempt at making the legal work become poetry and making these legal documents become literature. ... Somebody filed a lawsuit on behalf of these people, but the lawsuit is 70 pages long. Who was actually reading that lawsuit to get an understanding of what happened? Nobody but court actors. ... I wanted to make it represent what I think justice sounds like. And I wanted to turn it into a poem and I wanted to redact everything that was superfluous so that when you pick it up and read it, you say that this is the thing that matters. This is the thing that makes you hurt.

About Talking To His Sons About His Prison Time

I've had to tell my sons. Both of them learned, they were both five. But a friend of mine was telling me, he was like, 'I had [your] book out on the table and my son said, what's this thing?' ... And it hit me, my friends have to tell their children too. ... It was a thing that, you know, we are all a part of this community that's not just trying to figure out how to ... address mass incarceration but we all are part of this community just trying to figure out what it means to tell the people who look up to us that we've committed crimes, that our friends have committed crimes. And that's the part of the conversation that we don't have. I mean, we want to just make this story about how the system has wronged people. But when you talk to a child, when I told my son ... he was like 'I don't understand, bad people go to jail' — and that's just a different kind of geometry to figure out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.