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Prison advocate and MacArthur ‘genius’ turns what may be Malcolm X’s former cell into a library and place for hope

Tess Wheelwright, the Freedom Reads deputy director, and founder Reginald Dwayne Betts checked out the new library.Regina Chen/Mass Design Group

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the rare person who has freely chosen to return to prison, in a manner of speaking.

Incarcerated at 16 and paroled at 24, Betts has since built a career as a celebrated poet and attorney. He has won a MacArthur “genius grant” celebrating the remarkable trajectory of his life.

And two years ago, he was awarded a $5.25 million grant by the Mellon Foundation to build libraries in prisons — to create the kinds of spaces that inspired him, while incarcerated, to dream of what his life might become.

That is how he found himself at MCI-Norfolk one day this month, placing the first of those libraries — known as “Freedom Libraries” — in a hallowed spot, the cell believed to have been occupied by Malcolm X during his incarceration, and his conversion to Islam, in the late 1940s.


“When you hear Malcolm X talk about it — and understand it’s a prison in the ‘40s — he talks about it as a place where people valued education, where people valued knowledge,” Betts, 41, said. “He got a chance to be a leader of an intellectual community. So a project like this, what better place to put it to begin?”

Malcolm X hailed from the Midwest, but spent a formative period in Massachusetts. Part of that time was as a guest of the state correctional system, doing time in state prisons in Charlestown and Norfolk for property crimes — larceny and breaking and entering.

Most important, from the standpoint of history, prison was where he began his intellectual life and found his religious path, a transformation eloquently captured in his classic memoir, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

The idea of prison as a place of transformation seems to have captured Betts’s imagination. He was locked up for his role in a carjacking, serving eight years before being released. He became a poet first, then turned his attention to law, and to prison reform. He has a degree from Yale Law School, and is currently working on a doctorate there.


Though Betts was raised in Maryland and now lives in Connecticut, Massachusetts is close to him — he has been a fellow at Radcliffe and taught at Middlesex Community College.

“The thing about the Freedom Libraries is that we put them on housing units,” Betts said. ”We put them close to where people are. So every day when they look out their cells or they look around their living quarters they can see something beautiful, and they can access these books. These books can become a part of their life for as long as they have to be there. Also, the books can become a conduit for them not having to be there.”

Many prisons, including MCI-Norfolk, have libraries. But they are often law-oriented, patronized by inmates turned jailhouse lawyers hoping to find a way out of their predicament. Betts is thinking of something broader, and perhaps loftier.

So what’s in the new library? Betts said it’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction, curated (by him) to appeal to a broad mix of tastes. Malcolm X’s book is there, of course, along with staples of prison literature like Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” and John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers.” But it also includes Dickens and Steinbeck, poets Elizabeth Alexander and Robert Hayden, and Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Roughly a fifth of the books are in Spanish.


“It skews toward contemporary work and it’s diverse in every way you might expect,” Betts said. “It’s a lot of women writers. And it’s a combination of fun books and challenging books.”

Betts wasn’t certain when he got to MCI-Norfolk exactly where his library would go. He credits the prison’s superintendent, Nelson Alves, with the idea of putting it in the legendary cell.

“I feel bad having to admit that it wasn’t my idea,” Betts said sheepishly.

“[Alves] said, ‘I’ve worked in prisons 25 years and I’ve never seen anything beautiful here.” And so we built this thing that’s beautiful that has all this knowledge, and we’ve built it with the hope and the expectation that it will benefit the staff and those doing time as well.”

DOC officials say they cannot definitively confirm that the cell housing the library was Malcolm X’s, but say they are pleased about the collaboration, regardless, and anticipate that more Freedom Reads libraries will be built in the state’s prisons.

“One of the things Malcolm X said was that a prerequisite for changing your life is an understanding of what it means to be guilty,” Betts said. “And what it means to want to be more than that thing. And I think books give you access to that. So it’s this opportunity for people to come close to personal discovery, to come close to reflection.”


Betts’s own story — his personal redemption ― looms as an example of the potential to become more than anyone expected.

“I’m trying to change a narrative that suggests that possibility and hope are just slogans,” he said.

For him, changing that narrative means returning to prison, again and again. And it has meant returning to Massachusetts.

Betts was launching his career as a poet here when he was taken by the idea of going to law school, and trying to advocate for those in prison.

“I thought that I was leaving poetry behind to chase law and chase freedom,” Betts said.

“But in fact, I’ve found a way to thread all of it together. And so it’s fitting that I come back and start in Massachusetts, where I first started on that journey of love that’s taken me back to prison in really profound ways.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Malcolm X’s place of birth and the amount of the grant Betts received for prison libraries. Those errors have been corrected.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.