Saturday, June 19, 2010

R. Dwayne Betts' A Question of Freedom

R. Dwayne Betts' A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (2009) is a compelling and often poetic (he is in fact a published poet) memoir of a very young African American man who was put in prison for carjacking in Virginia in the mid-1990s.  He was 16 at the time and served nine years.

It is a scattered book, and it moves back and forth chronologically.  He plead guilty, was guilty, but dances around it:

The old head wanted to blame it on rap music, and often we wanted to blame it on racism, on the society that birthed us or on the streets that gave us the language of violence.  The blame didn't work (p. 60).

But when talking about his own specific crime, he never examines the moment, why he was there, and exactly what happened:

"Talking to him gave me the chance to realize that there are people willing to judge me by who I have become, and not by a moment of insanity" (p. 236).

This may be petty, because he suffered tremendously and for no particular purpose.  He never denies the guilt, only the disproportionate nature of the punishment.

The main message of the book is that prisons are set up in a way that creates failure.  Redemption is hard, and over the years Betts--a very smart guy--has to work diligently to achieve it.  Prisons make virtually no effort at rehabilitation, or even describe what that might look like.  Betts goes through excruciating years of trying to figure himself out, and to improve himself in spite of the obstacles prisons put in front of him.  It is so difficult to rehabilitate yourself that the vast majority of prisoners simply never will.

But, at least, he did.  And how he did so is worth reading about.


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