NEW HAVEN — Reginald Dwayne Betts refuses to let his time in prison define his life. But he admits that he can’t escape it. Even with an Ivy League education.
Days before he received his degree from Yale Law School on May 23, the Maryland native was splitting time between writing his final research paper and helping a longtime friend write letters to his parole officer.
It took a special bond to grab Betts’s attention during one of the most hectic weeks in his life, a bond born when the two shared a cellblock in a Virginia prison.
‘‘I've come a considerable distance from who I was at 16, but I'm still intimately connected to it, given the work I'm doing,’’ Betts said. ‘‘Of course, it feels amazing to say I've come this huge distance, but the distance I've traveled is only worth it if I'm able to pull other people up.’’
At 16, Betts used a borrowed pistol to hijack a car from a sleeping man at Virginia’s Springfield Mall, an offense that put him behind bars for eight years.
At 35, he has a wife and two energetic sons, a degree from one of the top law schools in the country, and a desire to change the national conversation about incarceration.
‘‘It’s useful to have someone who’s experienced both sides to be part of the conversation,’’ he said. ‘‘The law is a way to think and argue, and a way to find solutions. We think of people in the system, but we don’t think of how to get them out from under the thumb of the system.’’
Betts spent a good part of his life trying to outrun his criminal record.
On job applications. In the leasing offices for apartment complexes. There was always that box to check, a question about ‘‘criminal history’’ that dug up the specter of a life-changing mistake forged in the heat of a teenager’s brash recklessness.
He found freedom from his past at a place some might call unlikely. At Yale, Betts was surrounded by a different class of people. Young men and women who flocked to the campus because their parents were lawyers. Because, they told him, it was the next logical step in their lives.
He never felt alienated. In fact, his ease of assimilation steeled his resolve.
‘‘My ability to connect with my classmates told me it’s possible to have a society that doesn’t judge me for my past mistakes,’’ he said. ‘‘That it’s possible to create the notion that pre- and post-arrest, even pre- and post-incarceration, you’re still a part of society.’’
As comfortable as he felt at Yale, law school wasn’t always Betts’s goal.
He strove to be a writer, and has had more success in that field than most: A memoir and two collections of poetry. Fellowships to Warren Wilson College, where he earned a master of fine arts, and Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
‘‘Law is the language of power, and understanding that language is important to understanding power,’’ he said.
During his stint in prison, Betts realized he wasn’t being properly credited for the time he'd served between his arrest and his conviction. But he didn’t know how to communicate that through the proper channels. So he took a paralegal course.
Betts believes part of his success with his classmates and professors at Yale came from his openness — he is not afraid, he said, to talk about his past.
‘‘He’s a one-man wrecking ball for prejudice against people who often get written off,’’ said Noah Messing, who taught Betts during his second year at Yale.
‘‘Yale did not make Dwayne,’’ Messing said. “He’s already an extraordinary person.’’